Sample text for The soldier's pen : firsthand impressions of the Civil War / Robert E. Bonner.

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“Glimpses of Many Things Untold”

The most lasting image of the Civil War soldier emerged during the last third of the nineteenth century, when Americans in the North and the South assured that posterity would remember some three and a half million ordinary fighters. As the ranks of actual Civil War veterans thinned, these men’s younger selves rose atop monuments and gained immortality in stone and bronze. Tributes subsequently showered down on the common soldier focused on the hundreds of solitary statues that held vigil over town squares and busy intersections. Praise for the military service of these men has furnished themes for countless civic ceremonies, in spite of the fact that they went to war against one another. Pride in what each risked and lost has been expressed with particular intensity on Memorial Day, an annual commemoration begun in the wake of the Civil War.

The lavish attention devoted to the infantry private of the 1860s may not seem all that surprising in retrospect. For communities to honor defenders of their commonly shared values seems an obvious response. Yet in the context of the late nineteenth century, the elevation of the lowliest citizen-soldier over the statesman, the general, or the military conqueror was a strikingly novel gesture. Standing in uniform at parade rest with rifle at hand, this idealized soldier represented a new archetype, which proved to be a resilient part of the American culture of remembrance. By paying homage to this iconic soldier, the world’s leading democracy found a way to celebrate all who bore the greatest sacrifices of war by entering the lines of battle.

Americans created three distinctive types in their postbellum efforts to valorize the citizen-soldier, and these have remained prevalent down to the present day. “Billy Yank” and “Johnny Reb” are the best known, and at times these are separated by little more than the fact that the first wore blue and the second was dressed in gray. Tributes to the African-American soldier introduced a third idealized infantryman, who would rarely receive as much attention as his white counterparts. It was not a nickname, a uniform, or any of those handful of striking monuments to black troops that elevated the archetypal African-American private to public prominence. This work was done by the words of Abraham Lincoln, whose tribute to a black fighter with “silent tongue and clenched teeth, and steady eye and well-poised bayonet” matched an imagined face and a warlike figure to the 170,000 enlisted men of the United States Colored Troops (USCT).

Distilling the mass of individuals into a trio of familiar characters reflected an important truth about the commonalities of army life during the American Civil War. Military service did have a way of grinding down differences and making members of large, seemingly undifferentiated groups into the human equivalent of a machine’s interchangeable parts. The common soldier marched and ate en masse; he slept and bathed in shared quarters; his conduct was governed by standardized rules in force across thousands of miles; he formed the bottom of a chain of command organized by the nineteenth century’s most intricate hierarchies. Perhaps most important, death and lasting injury were doled out randomly for all who engaged in combat or exposed themselves to the filth of the army camp. One of the earliest and most important lessons that soldiers learned was that the fates of military life respected rank even less than did the ordinary workings of fortune.

One of the central aims of The Soldier’s Pen is to restore soldiers’ individuality, which is often lost in the familiar triumvirate of Union, Confederate, and African-American troops. Collective portraits resonate not just in public culture but also in the development of a superb body of scholarship devoted to the common soldier. Historians over the last half century have produced enormously rich social histories of military life by discerning patterns, identifying leading tendencies, and establishing the basic parameters of the soldiering experience of the 1860s. This constantly growing body of writing, which draws from the same kind of firsthand testimonials sampled throughout The Soldier’s Pen, has produced valuable insights into what it was like to serve during America’s most costly war. In the details of such work one can find ample appreciation for soldier distinctiveness, though individuality is rarely a sustained theme.

There have been unintended consequences in even the best overviews of soldier experiences, and these reinforce the tendencies of public memorialization. Most historians have framed their studies by asking how and why “the soldiers” joined the armies and how “they” then made the fight and returned home. Posing questions in collective cannot help blurring the distinct personalities of each fighter and obscuring the living, breathing humans who were inside standardized military uniforms. This book offers a different approach by emphasizing how most soldiers stubbornly maintained their individuality in the face of common hardships and regimentation. Its point of departure is the basic fact that American armies of the 1860s were largely composed of citizens with no earlier military aspirations, who took up soldiering for a specific period of time and then returned to civilian life. It should not be surprising that the experiences of these men (and the cluster of women who surreptitiously entered the armies) should be complex or that they would sustain their civilian perspectives by maintaining regular ties with home. Such variety resulted from the simple fact that fighting forces were a broad cross section of a multivaried American society, which during the 1860s was more thoroughly mobilized for war than at any other time in U.S. history.

The documents collected in this book serve to remind general readers and scholars alike of the enormous diversity that prevailed within Civil War America and the armies that it raised. The strategy I have chosen is better suited to suggesting this truth than to establishing it definitively. The book focuses on the vivid lives of sixteen figures, all of whose wartime writing is located within a single archive. The resulting fine-grained portraits of distinct individuals have been gathered and introduced from a relatively manageable larger group. Such a limiting strategy allows for the development of characters across a number of thematic topics. Across a series of chapters, readers will learn how the same men faced soldiering and fighting, how they confronted the political questions that their military service sought to resolve, and how they used their pens to grapple with it all. The breadth of expression achieved by each of these individuals is a means of recovering the human dimensions of what too often seems a dehumanizing, even impersonal war.

In putting together this collection and situating documents within chapters, I have sometimes allowed myself to imagine the impossible, if only to understand what might—and what might not—be gained by extended interaction with long-dead soldiers. What would it be like, I have occasionally wondered, to invite the hundreds of sculpted privates down from their pedestals and listen to individual voices that were magically brought back to life? This thought experiment has allowed me to understand what the poet Walt Whitman meant when he offered his own evocative description of what it meant to talk with Civil War troops and hear them out firsthand.

I have concluded that Whitman was not only eloquent in his account of “talks with soldiers,” which he first described in the fall of 1863 and then revisited in articles and books published during the 1870s and 1880s, but in most respects also right. The lessons he drew have informed my own sense of which documents should be included in The Soldier’s Pen. Whitman emphasized, as I have in selecting documents and choosing images, those parts of soldiers’ testimony that provide “glimpses of many things untold in any official reports or journal.” Individual writing featured below conveys intricate stories, deeply felt emotions, passionate political commitments, and images in words and in pictures that still stir the imagination and leave readers with a lasting impression of what happened nearly a century and a half ago. Such material is, by its very nature, unavailable in the utterances of politicians or the reports of commanders.

It seems to me that Whitman was also correct in explaining how opening oneself to soldiers’ words could lead to a heightened appreciation of the country’s collective experience. “I now doubt,” the poet confided after several months among the troops, “whether one can get a fair idea of what this war practically is, or what genuine America is, and her character, without some such experience as this I am having.” This was a keen insight, and it suggests a crucially important point that I have also tried to keep in mind within each of the following chapters. Emphasizing individual voices need not keep readers from appreciating the larger picture, especially when there is enough context provided to understand each soldier’s distinctive circumstances. As Whitman sensed, making a concerted effort to appreciate the parts and to set them in meaningful contexts can result in an increased appreciation of the broader course of American history during the early 1860s.

The back and forth of an imagined conversation with long-dead troops would surely provide a memorable encounter to anyone now living. Yet a communion in person, however bracing, would still not satisfy what might be our deepest urge, which is to gain a vicarious experience of war by hearing soldiers bear witness to the travails they suffered and the satisfactions they gained. As the writer and veteran Samuel Hynes has explained in his own meditation on The Soldiers’ Tale, civilians can listen endlessly to those “who were there” without coming any closer to “being there” themselves. Appreciating the personal dimensions of enlisted life requires nothing less (and nothing more) than becoming a soldier. It strikes me (as a male who has never served in the military) that describing war shares something with conveying the experience of childbirth to those who have not lived through either. In both these instances even the most evocative language cannot make irreducibly complex human experiences fully available to the uninitiated outsider.

That soldiering and combat are fundamentally incommunicable may appear to be an unusual admission at the outset of a book featuring soldiers’ impressions of war. Identifying this central truth is not meant as a disclaimer or a forecast of reader frustration, however. This acknowledgment instead helps establish the inherent tensions that mark soldier writing and explains why such documents merit careful consideration. How soldiers attempted to bridge the unbridgeable gap between themselves and civilian audiences produced enormously interesting results. Because of the intrinsic difficulties of the enterprise, writing forced even those who were not particularly adept with their pens to move beyond formulas and to perform the verbal and visual improvisations that best related their messages. The results were often extraordinary, as the passages and pictures that appear below will make clear. The more than 180 documents range from the poignant, clinical, and gruesome to the evasive, angry, and absurd. A tone of quiet resignation runs throughout many, signaling both the difficulty and the importance of putting meaningful thought and feeling into language that might be shared with others.

Whitman called attention to this tendency of soldiers to register their experience with a language of spare expressiveness. He explained how “the superfluous flesh of talking” had been “long work’d off” by fighting for most of those he engaged in conversation. There was “little but the hard meat and sinew” that remained in soldiers’ autobiographical reflections. The simple eloquence of soldiers’ language impressed Whitman, who hinted that their words formed a species of poetry that rivaled his own verse. One can appreciate what the poet found so fascinating and compelling about what he heard from those in the ranks. “The vocal play and significance moves one more than books,” he explained, in terms that apply as much to soldiers’ private writing as to their private talking. “There hangs something majestic about a man who has borne his part in battles, especially if he is very quiet regarding it.”

While the busy pens of Civil War soldiers allowed some of the same “vocal play and significance” as did conversations, they left permanent traces that allowed later generations (including our own) to achieve the closest communion possible with actual nineteenth-century soldiers. As the following selections attest, reading such documents provides its own satisfaction by allowing us to eavesdrop on the innermost thoughts and feelings that soldiers committed to paper. Though historians are loath to admit it, there is an illicit thrill that comes with reading other people’s mail. There is a sense of discovery, which can blur into embarrassment about trespassing upon intimacy, in peering into diaries and sketches that were created during private moments soldiers set aside for themselves. The fact that we are not the primary audience of this writing has a way of making our experience of their words even more “real” than if they spoke to us directly.

A second goal of this book, which works in tandem with its emphasis on soldier individuality, is to reflect upon the ways soldiers committed their impressions to paper. In giving permanence to their wartime reflections, these sixteen men created a series of self-authored memorials to the service of all common infantrymen. Individual families who secured these treasures understood that reading words composed from those long dead formed its own sort of tribute. Something about reading with an ear for the soldier’s writerly voice becomes an act of public homage even more evocative than gazing upon a statue.

Surprisingly little has been written about Civil War soldier writing as writing. We lack any systematic treatment of the circumstances, the implications, and the unifying qualities of the voluminous written record compiled by ordinary infantrymen of the 1860s. This is not to say that diaries, letters, sketchbooks, and other written artifacts have been unknown to historians. Scholars have used this testimony regularly, turning to it as a repository of “evidence” that can be stitched together to support larger claims and to sustain generalizations. Snippets and choice quotes appear more often in historical writing than the lengthy extracts this book conveys. My approach intends to make far more clear than is usual the nuanced positions and the gradual evolution of ideas and images of men who changed over the course of their service. Perhaps later scholars will devote greater attention to the writing of Civil War soldiers as a cultural practice worthy of historical investigation. If they do, we may begin to understand how this distinctive body of work contributes not simply to American history but to a fuller appreciation of American literary expression.

To appreciate soldier writing as writing requires some basic classifications. The most important of these involve the three distinct forms used to record wartime impressions with ink and paper. Soldiers most often wrote about their experiences in personal correspondence composed at the front and sent home to family and friends through the mail. Civil War armies were drawn from an unusually literate population, and a postal service operated in both the Union and the Confederacy to assure regular written communications between the military and home front. Many, many more letters were sent and received by Civil War soldiers than during any previous war. While precise numbers are simply not available, we know that letters carried to and from the armies numbered in the tens of millions over the course of four years.

The flow of soldier mail during the Civil War was intense by earlier measures, but it fell short of the levels seen during twentieth-century conflicts. These later wartime communications were subjected to far closer scrutiny and monitoring, a fact that prevented them from including the open discussion of intimate and controversial topics typical of much Civil War correspondence. The military mail of the 1860s was unique in benefiting from a mass communications system that had not yet established a regular system of surveillance. What troops wrote would surely have been hindered by the perceived sensitivity of their intended recipients. But there seemed to have been hardly any fear that overt dissent, or even the discussion of unauthorized desertion, would be monitored or result in a soldier’s punishment.

Diaries constituted the second most popular form of Civil War soldier writing. These were kept freely, with none of the restrictions on the practice that were imposed during twentieth-century wars, when private diaries were often banned lest they betray details by falling into enemy hands. While fewer enlisted men of the Union and the Confederacy kept journals than wrote letters, those diaries that have survived are marked by several distinctive traits. They convey a unique sense of immediacy by having been composed on a day-to-day basis (rather than in the rhythm of weekly reports that most correspondence through the mail followed). A notable quality of completeness distinguished such accounts, since these became finished products after an extended period of time, usually the passage of an entire year. Lines in diaries were assembled at a slow pace, and this meant that the most introspective of them were able to dramatize how individuals changed over time. The millions of words from surviving soldiers’ journals varied in the quality of their observations, of course, and a great many diarists (probably a majority) were more intent on cataloging the weather or keeping account of a soldier’s purchases and his debts than exploring the larger meanings of the war. The three journal keepers who appear in this book explore more compelling matters. Each of their writing voices attains a distinctive register all its own.

Soldiers did not limit their penmanship to words. Some of the most interesting letters and diaries contained drawings made from the front lines. These range from relatively crude stick figures to carefully rendered compositions, maps, and diagrams. Sketchbooks offer the most sustained examples of visual testimony, and two such documents are extensively featured throughout The Soldier’s Pen. One of these is a watercolored account that a young German-speaking recruit compiled with considerable artistry. The second contains a series of caricatures that allowed an anonymous private to probe the darkly comic elements of a soldier’s life. The work of these two soldier-artists provides a helpful counterpart to the illustrations made by the dozens of wartime professionals, whose images have long formed the basis of the war’s visual catalog. Illustrations that appear in the following pages are different sorts of sources, not least because, with few exceptions, they do not seem to have been composed for publication. As was the case with the authors of the letters and journals in the book, a smaller intended audience hardly made such works any less important to their creators. For subsequent generations, their limited circulation only increases their worth as intimate firsthand impressions.

Excerpted from The Soldier’s Pen: Firsthand Impressions of the Civil War by Robert E. Bonner. Copyright © 2006 by Robert E. Bonner. Published in November 2006 by Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Biography.
Soldiers -- United States -- Biography.
Soldiers -- Confederate States of America -- Biography.
United States. -- Army -- Biography.
Confederate States of America. -- Army -- Biography.
United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Personal narratives.
Soldiers' writings, American.
United States. -- Army -- Military life -- History -- 19th century.
Confederate States of America. -- Army -- Military life.