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Why Men Fought in the Civil War

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Men who hurried to sign up for the armies of the North and South in the early years of the American Civil War, joined – to varying degrees – for the follow reasons: out of a sense of duty and honor to country (whether North or South), to feel and prove oneself “manly,” a trait tied closely to notions of courage, and in search of adventure and the glory and excitement of battle. Historian James McPherson’s readings of thousands of letters written by soldiers revealed that duty and honor were closely linked to “masculinity” in Victorian America and war presented an opportunity to prove one’s self a man. [i]

Troops

D.W.C. Arnold, a private in the Union Army

Photo of D.W.C. Arnold, a private in the Union Army. The National Archives Ref. 111-B-5435

In the South, the ideas of duty and honor were most prevalent in the upper classes while such notions were less class specific in the North. Some men from both sides shared a sense of shame in “not” serving and this need to carry one’s self well remained a motivating factor for many of the men who actually “did” the fighting.

Money was not an apparent motivation for joining the military. Most men – and their families – sacrificed economically as a result of their service. Many gave up the best years of their lives, if not life itself. Later in the war, when recruits were harder to find, motivations broadened. Money may have become more of a factor and was certainly such for those who scammed the system to obtain more than one signing bonus.

Regardless of what brought men to war, their performance as soldiers varied. A good many served well. Others discovered within themselves a lack of courage and joined the ranks of men who shrank into the shadows during battles, assuring themselves safety from injury or death but not from the stigma of “coward” and “shirker.” As the war dragged on, survivors began to change their perspectives on what constituted courage and cowardice as well as their notions of the proper conduct of war.
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Copyright © 2010 Rene Tyree
[i] James M. McPherson. For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 25.
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Civil War History Phrase of the Day – The Flying Column

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Supply and logistics were a huge challenge for the Army of the Potomac and this was certainly true as General Joseph Hooker (above, 1814 – 1879) contemplated moving his massive 163,000 man army offensively against Lee near the Rappahannock in the Spring of 1863. Breaking the logistical chain was the challenge.

According to author Edward Hagerman, Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs (below) had circulated a sketch created by Alexis Godillot of the logistical organization of a “flying column” in the French army on January 2, 1862.[i]

digital file from original neg.

It was based on a concept developed in 1840 when “the French, particularly Thomas Robert Bugeaud (below, 1784-1849, Marquis de la Piconnerie, Duc d’Isly), recognized that because the Arab insurgents in North Africa had a tremendous mobility advantage over the French colonial forces, the classic style of logistics would not be effective there. To increase the mobility of his forces, Bugeaud created highly mobile independent detachments called “flying columns” by lightening greatly the logistical structure of his force. Around 1860 a study of Bugeaud’s (painting below) logistical methods was written by Alexis Godillot.”[ii]

Thomas Robert Bugeaud, Marshal of France.

The idea was this. Soldiers in a flying column carried eight days of compressed rations, including desiccated vegetables along with a blanket (no overcoat allowed). “Men were divided into squads of eight, one of whom was to carry a covered cooking kettle, another a large mess tin, another an axe, another a pick, and one a shovel. One man in each company carried the hospital knapsack. Each man carried his share of a shelter tent.” [iii]

“On march 7, 1863, general headquarters of the Army of the Potomac passed down Special Order no. 85, establishing a board to make recommendations on ‘the practicality and means of carrying an increased amount of rations…over the three days usually carried,’ having in view ‘the marching of troops without encumbrance of extra clothing or shelter tents, the use of desiccated vegetables or flour, and the carrying of fresh beef on the hoof, and the omission, in consequence, of beef or pork from the rations.’” [iv]

After some experimentation, the board recommended a workable configuration and these were “immediately implemented in preparation for an eight-day march designed to turn Lee out of his positions on the Rappahannock. Each corps, including the cavalry, was made into a flying column on the French model, with some modifications. In addition to the knapsack and haversack with blanket, the soldier carried his should arms, sixty rounds of ammunition, accouterments, and a piece of shelter tent. An extra pair of socks was allowed.” Unlike the French, entrenchment tools were brought up as required by the reserve train. “The soldier carried an average load of forty-five points.” [v]

According to James J. Schneider, “by 1864 Bugeaud’s method of flying columns formed the core of Federal Army logistical doctrine. This triumph over the old classical system was demonstrated decisively in Grant’s invasions of the South.” [vi]
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[i, iii, iv, v] Edward Hagerman, The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare: Ideas, Organization, and Field Command (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 71-72.
[ii, vi] James J. Schneider, “VULCAN’S ANVIL: The American Civil War and the Foundations of Operational Art,” June 16, 1992, online, http://cgsc.cdmhost.com/cgi-bin/showfile.exe?CISOROOT=/p4013coll11&CISOPTR=9&filename=10.pdf 
, accessed May 13, 2008, 44.
Photo source: Montgomery C. Meigs, Library of Congress, Rep #: LC-DIG-cwpbh-03111.
Painting of Thomas Robert Bugeaud, Wiki Commons.

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Death and Injury on the Battlefield – Part II

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Continuing from the post Death and Injury on the Battlefield Part I here, this post deals with battlefield injuries.

Confederate Wounded at Smith's Barn with Dr Anson Hurd 14th Indiana Volunteers in Attendance after the Battle of Antietam – Near Keedysville, MD, September 1862Those who were injured on the battlefield first had to either remove themselves or hope they would be helped to a field hospital, usually a tent, house, barn or shed marked by a red flag and located as close to the line of battle as possible.[i] There they might find a surgeon and one assistant surgeon, although there was only one of each per regiment. Getting the large number of wounded to the field hospital was challenging. “Three days after the second battle of Manassas, in August 1862, 3,000 men still lay where they had fallen. The first casualties were not moved until September 9th.”[ii] It wasn’t until after the battle of Antietam that the Union Army established an ambulance corps for removing the wounded from the field.[iii] Amputation

If shot by a Minie ball, a soft lead bullet fired from a rifle musket, a soldier’s wound was likely to be large because these .58 [caliber] bullets would deform and tunnel on impact.[iv] “Dr. E. I. Howard of the Army of Northern Virginia described the effects of Minie Ball on bone: ‘… wounds of bony structure inflicted by this missile are characterized by extensive fissuring and comminution such as was rarely, if ever, seen when the old smooth Bore musket was the weapon of the soldier.”[v] Amputation was the rule for gunshot or shrapnel wounds that involved major blood vessels or large bones. “Roughly 50,000 amputations were performed by both sides during the Civil War, compared to around 4,000 in the First World War.”[vi] Men shot or severely injured in the abdomen or chest wounds almost always died and so were rarely treated.

Erysipelas, pyaemia (clots in the veins) septicemia and hospital gangrene were the four major hospital diseases. Erysipelas, or St Anthony’s Fire, was a common problem. This was several years before Lister’s discovery of germ theory. Surgeons operated in unsanitary and unsterile conditions. The lower incidence of wound suppuration in destitute Confederate hospitals has been attributed to the fact that they closed wounds with horse-tail hair which was first boiled, whereas the Northern Army used surgical silk which, although a better product, was not sterile.[vii]

Those who worked in military hospitals did so at great personal risk. Many of them contracted diseases themselves and perished. Common in the literature is record of the absolute despair that existed there. This would, no doubt, make for a great story in and of itself at some point in the future.

Further reading:

  • For more on weapons carried during the American Civil War, see the previous post The Weapons they Carried here.
  • For good coverage of how amputations were performed during the Civil War, click here.

© 2007 L. Rene Tyree

[i] Penny Johnston, “A Healing History of North and South,” History Today, January 1997 [database on-line]; available from Questia, http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5000399106; Internet; accessed 29 September 2007. [ii] Ibid., [iii] Ibid., [iv] Ibid., [v] Ibid., [vi] Ibid., [vii] Ibid.

Photo credits:

Confederate Wounded at Smith’s Barn with Dr Anson Hurd 14th Indiana Volunteers in Attendance after the Battle of Antietam – Near Keedysville, MD, September 1862

Cropped image of Amputation Being Performed in a Hospital Tent – Gettysburg, PA, July 1863. LOC.

Why Men Fought in the Civil War

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Men who hurried to sign up for the armies of the North and South in the early years of the American Civil War, joined – to varying degrees – for the follow reasons: out of a sense of duty and honor to country (whether North or South), to feel and prove oneself “manly,” a trait tied closely to notions of courage, and in search of adventure and the glory and excitement of battle. Historian James McPherson’s readings of thousands of letters written by soldiers revealed that duty and honor were closely linked to “masculinity” in Victorian America and war presented an opportunity to prove one’s self a man.[i]

In the South, the ideas of duty and honor were most prevalent in the upper classes while such notions were less class specific in the North. Some men from both sides shared a sense of shame in “not” serving and this need to carry one’s self well remained a motivating factor for many of the men who actually “did” the fighting.
D.W.C. Arnold Private in Union Army

Money was not an apparent motivation for joining the military. Most men – and their families – sacrificed economically as a result of their service. Many gave up the best years of their lives, if not life itself. Later in the war, when recruits were harder to find, motivations broadened. Money may have become more of a factor and was certainly such for those who scammed the system to obtain more than one signing bonus.

Regardless of what brought men to war, their performance as soldiers varied. A good many served well. Others discovered within themselves a lack of courage and joined the ranks of men who shrank into the shadows during battles, assuring themselves safety from injury or death but not from the stigma of “coward” and “shirker.” As the war dragged on, survivors began to change their perspectives on what constituted courage and cowardice as well as their notions of the proper conduct of war.
Photo of D.W.C. Arnold, a private in the Union Army. Photo from The National Archives [Ref. 111-B-5435
__________________________
Copyright © 2007 Rene Tyree
[i]James M. McPherson. For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 25.