War For The Common Soldier: How Men Thought, Fought, and Survived in Civil War Armies, Peter S. Carmichael, University of North Carolina Press, 408 pp., illustrations, bibliographic notes, bibliography, index, 2019, $34.95
Review Source: H-Civil War, Christopher Rein, Combat Studies Institute, The Army Press
Reviewed by Christopher Rein (Combat Studies Institute, The Army Press)
Peter S. Carmichael’s The War for the Common Soldier is, above all else, a pragmatic book. In highlighting the defining characteristics of the men who fought and suffered through the Civil War, Carmichael seeks to bridge a widening rift between more popular celebratory and heroic accounts of soldiers that began shortly after the end of the war—and, advanced most notably by Bell Wiley, continue, in some form to the present day—and an increasingly critical view of the rank and file as unfortunate pawns who, misled by the nationalism that sparked a misguided rush to the colors, found themselves trapped in an unforgiving machine that resulted in misery and death for far too many, a view that seems to have some appeal to those interested in the “darker” aspects of the sectional conflict.
Thus, the author joins with Union soldier Amos Judson in pushing back against a “sentimental culture with its enshrinement of extreme courage and its sanitation of the war’s most grotesque elements” (p. 230), while still revealing the laudable conduct and mental agility of soldiers in both armies. As the double entendre in his title suggests, Carmichael seeks to both explore the experience for the common soldier as well as weigh in on the historiographical debate over how he should be remembered. In doing so, the author provides a very useful theoretical construct for understanding how Civil War soldiers conceptualized, endured, and remembered their wartime experiences.
In arguing for a defining sense of pragmatism among the soldiers of both armies, Carmichael suggests that they were neither the ideologues suggested by works such as James McPherson’s For Cause and Comrades and Gary Gallagher's The Union War, nor the helpless victims of a wasteful and destructive conflict. Instead, they adapted to their conditions, rationalized both the incredible losses around them and their own, at times remorseful survival, and pragmatically faced the numerous challenges, be they mental, physical, or emotional.
Though their idealism often eroded, the author argues that a pragmatic philosophy “never left Northern or Southern soldiers standing on the barren ground of nihilism” (p. 99). Well grounded in the relevant secondary literature, but relying extensively on soldiers’ letters, Carmichael counters the usual technique of using short snippets to support an argument by developing longer case studies, or “microhistories” of certain soldiers to place their evolving thoughts in context, resulting, in a nod to Clifford Geertz, in a “thick description approach” (p. 175). Most of the seven chapters (though several deviate from this format) rely on from three to six of these case studies to provide soldiers’ conceptions of the war, from resisting the temptation to desert to staying connected with the home front to rationalizing the hand of providence’s role in victory or defeat.
While the examples (apparently despite the best efforts of Earl Hess) skew heavily toward the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia, the larger numbers serving in the eastern theater probably justify the greater emphasis. In an acknowledgement of the growing importance of the subfield of guerrilla studies, Carmichael feels compelled to include a full paragraph on why he chose to exclude this group, despite “some of the most exciting and engaging scholarship coming out of the field of Civil War history,” as “its inclusion would have diverted attention away from my primary focus on conventional armies” (p. 13). The result is a fairly comprehensive cultural and intellectual history of the common soldier that largely overcomes concerns about representativeness, though Carmichael accepts that “no single individual can possibly represent the 2.7 million men who served in the Union forces and the 1.2 to 1.4 million men who stood in the ranks of the Confederate military. There was no common soldier in the Civil War” (p. 12). But the wealth of resources available on those soldiers who ran afoul of the military’s justice system results in a slight over representation of that demographic. This review is continued at H-Net.
CWL: Indeed, Carmichaels' work is splendid and opens to readers the lives and letters of Civil War soldiers, in the midst of the war.