A few years ago, I had the honor of being selected for a key role on a team engaged in scanning, transcribing and digitizing a trove of recently rediscovered letters, diaries and narratives of the Massachusetts 31st Infantry, which turned up more than a century after these were compiled by their regimental historian but left unpublished. In a lifetime of studying the American Civil War, soldiers’ letters were hardly new to me, of course, but I found myself surprisingly emotional as I became one of the very first in so many decades to get a glimpse at the sometimes-hidden hearts of these long-dead souls. And there was something else: rather than the random excerpt, often highlighted for its dramatic impact, that makes a familiar appearance in the pages of history books, these materials represent continuous strands of communication by nearly two dozen individuals, some of which stretched over a three-year period. The stories they tell run the gamut from the mundane to the comedic to the horrific, but collectively the nature and the personalities of the storytellers emerge to reveal authenticity in their experience too frequently lost in grand narratives about the war. A careful read of a man’s letters home over several years often unexpectedly expose truths that are omitted or deliberately distorted by the correspondent.
This overarching point is subtly but expertly made again and again in historian Peter S. Carmichael’s magnificent work, The War for the Common Soldier: How Men Thought, Fought and Survived in Civil War Armies, certainly one of the most significant recent contributions to the historiography. As primary sources, surviving letters from the front are critical and invaluable, but even more critical may be interpretation, which can be misled by taking these at face value, or plucking them out of context, or being seduced by the words of a man who wants his wife or mother—or especially himself—to believe that he is courageous or confident or committed to his cause when only some or none of those may be true.
In a dense, but highly readable account that brings a surprisingly fresh perspective to a frequently overlooked aspect of Civil War studies, Carmichael defies often prevailing generalizations of soldiers north and south that tend to predominate in the literature, reminding the reader that a tendency to oversimplification distorts the reality on the ground. Something like a total of 2.75 million men fought on both sides in the Civil War. These were living, breathing human beings, not simply the statistical figures fed into databases to produce the broad generalities pervasive in many narratives. At the same time, he does not fail to locate and identify the commonalities in the rank and file that exist in multiple arenas, but his skillful approach to this end is guided by the nuance and complexity that is the mark of a great historian.
Carmichael’s well-written chronicle explores almost all aspects of a soldier’s life in camp, on the march and in battle, but that nuance is made most manifest in the chapter entitled “Desertion and Military Justice.” The accepted wisdom has long argued that bounty jumpers constituted the majority of those shot for desertion over the course of the war, and perhaps with some justification. But while the numbers underscore that there were plenty who likely fit that profile, Carmichael’s research demonstrates that such a broad brush obscures a reality that saw men on both sides leaving the lines and returning, frequently more than once, and typically with little or no penalty. This was especially common among Confederates, who usually fled not out of cowardice or convenience but rather to aid starving families back home desperate for survival. And there was, in many cases, a fine line between AWOL and desertion. It is surprising how often luck or simply the vagaries of enforcement separated men made to sit on their own coffins with eyes bandaged while the firing squad formed up from those docked a month’s pay instead. It does seem that Lincoln’s moral compass was more finely oriented to the circumstances of the soldier missing from his company—even if this found friction among the Union brass—than was the case on the other side, for the reality was that by percentage far more men clad in gray were put to death than those in blue, and some of these were mass executions before the lines. What is clear is that on both sides, the common soldier—even the veteran accustomed to the gore and slaughter of battle—was deeply disturbed when compelled to witness the cold-blooded murder of a fellow soldier, even if he thought the man got his just deserts.
A review such as this cannot possibly touch upon all of the themes Carmichael surveys in this outstanding study, but I was especially drawn to his treatment of the phenomenon of malingering, which instantly found a familiar face in Cpl. Joshua W. Hawkes, one of my men from the 31st, who bragged in letters to his mother about his health while he served away from the cannon fire as part of the occupation army in New Orleans, even taking swipes at those pretending to be ill to avoid duty. Yet later, on the very eve of combat, he fell victim first to “diarrhoea” and then to a bewildering set of ever-shifting complaints that kept him confined to a hospital bed for months until he was eventually discharged for disability. I read this man’s letters in isolation, of course, but Carmichael’s impressive research demonstrates not only that this soldier’s manufactured symptoms put him in the company of thousands of other “shirkers,” but also underscores how difficult it was for doctors equipped with the primitive diagnostic tools of mid-nineteenth century medicine to distinguish the truly afflicted from those talented at feigning illness to avoid combat or earn a discharge. As such, there were men who genuinely suffered sent back to come under enemy fire, while others who were quite healthy succeeded in dodging the same.
Some years after my project with the 31st, I was given access to a private collection of unpublished letters from George W. Gould, a Massachusetts private killed at the bloody battle of Cold Harbor in 1864. I transcribed his correspondence and created a website for public access to honor him, and I visit his grave in Paxton MA several times a year. When I placed a flag on his grave to commemorate Memorial Day 2019, I found myself in somber reflection of not only the sacrifice of Private Gould, but also of the vast territory covered in The War for the Common Soldier, because although his name appears nowhere in the narrative this book is surely about George W. Gould and every man who marched alongside him, as well as every man he marched against in opposition with musket held high. Pvt. George W. Gould and Cpl. Joshua W. Hawkes are just two of the millions who either gasped their last breaths on Civil War battlefields or drank beer at memorials in the decades that followed. If you want to understand that terrible war, you should indeed visit battlefields and explore the latest historiography, but you should also pause to read Carmichael’s superlative work. The truth is that you will never comprehend the Civil War until you come to understand the Civil War soldier. Some books should be required reading. This is one of them.
[REVIEW ADDENDUM: Some years back, I had the great honor of being selected for a key role on a team engaged in scanning, transcribing and digitizing a trove of recently rediscovered letters, diaries and narratives of the Massachusetts 31st Infantry—a regiment that first served with Benjamin Butler as an occupying force in New Orleans, and later as part of the Red River campaign under Nathaniel Banks—which turned up in the archives of the Lyman & Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History more than a century after they were compiled by their regimental historian but left unpublished due to his untimely death. These materials can be accessed at: https://31massinf.wordpress.com
I found Carmichael’s treatment of malingerers especially fascinating, because it related to my own work with the Massachusetts 31st and Cpl. Joshua W. Hawkes, who in letters to his mother made dozens of references to his generally good health during the first portion of his service, where he thrived as part of the occupying force under Benjamin Butler in New Orleans. In one missive from the autumn of 1862 [letter 10/18/62], he even bragged about how quickly he recovered from the “ague” while taking a swipe at those who pretended to be ill, noting that while he was “back to duty now there is so much playing off sick I do not wish any such name.” Ironically then, in April 1863, on the eve of what would have been his first foray into combat, [letter 04/17/63] Hawkes was beset with “diarrhoea” [SIC] which eventually led to his return to New Orleans, this time to the St. James Hospital, where a bewildering set of ever-shifting complaints kept him confined—but not incapable of eating fairly well, such as “an egg in the morning, a piece of toasted bread each meal and a little claret wine,” [letter 6/4/63] and occasionally exploring the city when granted a pass—until he eventually succeeded in gaining a discharge for disability in July 1863. In one of his more histrionic letters to mother, he proclaims:
“I am perhaps disposed to magnify my ails, but when I have seen men brought in here who had been forced to march with diarrhoea [SIC] … coming here too weak to walk and living but a week or two, then I have thought it was not best to beg to be sent away to the exposures of an army on active duty in the field. They can call me a coward, a shirk, what they choose, but I think it a duty to take care of my health not only for myself but on my mother’s account, what do you think of this logic?” [letter 06/04/63]
Apparently, this “logic” served Hawkes’ well, since he was sent home without ever coming under enemy fire and lived on until 1890!
Hawkes letters referenced above are accessible at: https://31massinf.wordpress.com/correspondence/letters-of-joshua-w-hawkes-part-4-1863/
Some years after my project with the 31st, I was given access to a private collection of the unpublished letters of Pvt. George W. Gould, who was killed at the bloody battle of Cold Harbor in 1864. He has come to serve as my “adopted” Civil War soldier, so by honoring him I likewise honor all of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. I scanned and transcribed his letters and created a website to honor him, which can be accessed at: https://resurrectinglostvoices.com
I have attached this addendum not because these particular soldiers who fell or survived have a greater or lesser import than any of the other hundreds of thousands who served in the American Civil War, but rather to add meaningful context, and to underscore the essential point of Carmichael’s wonderful book, which is that you must read far more deeply into what these men had to say in their letters home if you really want to try to understand the war at all.]