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A Slapdash War

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Historian Bruce Catton

A common theme among authors I have read this term who have written about the experiences of Civil War soldiers is the informality with which the war was conducted. Historian Bruce Canton called it

slapdash.”

Now there’s a word we don’t use much today. I looked it up. Here’s Princeton’s take:

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Slapdash

adjective – marked by great carelessness; “a most haphazard system of record keeping”; “slapdash work”; “slipshod spelling”; “sloppy workmanship” [syn: `haphazard]

adverb – in a careless or reckless manner; “the shelves were put up slapdash”

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It started with loose regimental recruitment methods. Drill and discipline were a far cry from today’s standards. Gerald Linderman, in his book Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War, spoke of the common practice of men within a community signing up together so pre-war relationships were undoubtedly difficult to set aside. Winter quarters; soldiers in front of their wooden hut, Catton supported this indicating that “in the average regiment of officers were people whom the enlisted men had known all their lives.” Election of officers by the men was a practice that continued long into the war and contributed to the problem. Even though recruits pledged to obey their officers, informality remained the rule. Catton’s quote of an Indiana soldier illustrates this point perfectly.

We had enlisted to put down the rebellion and had no patience with the red-tape tomfoolery of the regular service. Furthermore, the boys recognized no superiors, except in the line of legitimate duty. Shoulder straps waived, a private was ready at the drop of a hat to thrash his commander – a thing that occurred more than once.

“Regular army” officers shared frustration with this lack of regard for authority on both sides as it wasn’t unique to one army or the other. Catton noted astutely that men “could be led anywhere, but they could hardly be driven at all.”

A very fine lecture by Gerald Linderman covering more on this topic can be found here.

Copyright © 2007 Rene Tyree

Embattled Courage

W. Bruce Catton, America Goes to War: The Civil War and Its Meaning in American Culture, (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press), 51.
Gerald E. Linderman,
Embattled Courage: The Experiences of Combat in the American Civil War,
(New York: The Free Press, 1987), 40.
slapdash. Dictionary.com.
WordNet® 3.0. Princeton University. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/slapdash(accessed: November 19, 2007).

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