Taking a Walk on the Civil War’s “Dark Side”

This year, I am embarking on a rather foolhardy ambitious scholarly agenda, and my central project is a textbook for the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. I know, I know…there’s a crying need for another Civil War textbook; there’s nothing at all being written on the subject, and it is incumbent on me to fill this egregious lacuna in the scholarship. Don’t worry; I’ll find sources somewhere. But in reality, I am addressing a lacuna in the scholarship of perhaps the most-published-about area of not just US History, but History in general (neck and neck with World War II). My project is a “continental history” of the era–and by era, I mean something different that the standard “two introductory chapters, ten chapters on the Civil War (with the one obligatory homefront chapter), one emancipation chapter, a Reconstruction chapter, and then DONE” model. I mean ERA–as in, “perhaps four years, no matter how important and action-packed, do not an entire era make.” So shameless plug: if you’re teaching this era and are frustrated by textbook options that are overwhelmingly battles-and-politics-centric, then look for my book in a couple years! I was similarly frustrated–that’s why I’m writing the book in the first place.

But enough of the self-promotion. I told y’all that story to tell you this one: as one who is clearly invested in conversations about reframing and re-visioning the Civil War era, I’ve been following the recent discussions about Civil War military history with a great deal of interest. First, the two flagship journals for the period, Civil War History and Journal of the Civil War Era both published manifestos by prominent military historians (Earl Hess in CWH, Kathryn Shively Meier and Gary Gallagher in JCWE) lamenting the supposed decline of their field in the face of other scholarly trends (read: social and cultural history). Both of them adopted a clear “whither military history?” perspective, and both seemed dismayed by the answer to their question. Megan Kate Nelson does a great job summarizing both pieces, and her characterization–“Civil War Military Historians are Freaking Out”–is spot-on. The manifestos, as she points out, are based on flimsy data and anecdotal evidence that seems trumped-up in order to address the REAL problem, which is apparently studies of the war that are not purely “military.” As Nelson correctly points out, “[s]uch unfounded arguments start to read like conspiracy theories, which completely undermine any kind of reasonable points that Civil War military historians can make about the importance of their own approach.” Kathleen Logothetis Thompson has also written on this emergent kerfuffle on Civil Discourse,* and also attempts to blunt the edges of the Hess-Meier-Gallagher argument by making an excellent point about the nature of historical scholarship writ large:

Historical interpretation and scholarship moves in cycles that often matches the concerns of the present generation; for example, the large wave of studies on the African-American experience and slavery following the Civil Rights Movement or the rise of gender and women’s history in the later decades of the twentieth century.  Many new fields of scholarship are questioned in the beginning until they are accepted by academia, and most of the works that come out of each new interpretation focus solely on their arguments (and thus paint them as very important, sometimes disproportionally).

I would add that sometimes it is the critics of these new approaches that put the disproportionate emphasis on the new perspectives, reducing them to caricatures and generalizations and then projecting them up as avatars of the entire field; that certainly seems to be the case in this conversation.

Coming in for particular criticism is the new wave of scholarship that takes the many facets of the war’s devastation as its interpretive lens. Michael Adams’s Living Hell: The Dark Side of the Civil War and Megan Kate Nelson’s Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War are two of the best examples of this new, compelling scholarship that promises to enlarge and inform our perspective of the war and its manifold consequences on both the psychological and physical landscapes of the United States. But for Gallagher and Meier, this new wave bodes ill:

The most recent incarnation of the increasing focus on victims in Civil War history appears to be our scholarly preoccupation with the war’s “dark side”—studies that emphasize, among other things, atrocities, cowardice, needless bloodshed, physical maiming, or mental breakdowns among soldiers and veterans.  There is nothing particularly new about this, as the writings of Ambrose Bierce, Frank Wilkeson, and many pioneering scholars between the 1920s and 1980s might attest, and no scholar steeped in sources would suggest that most soldiers committed atrocities, exhibited cowardice in combat (a behavior very difficult to categorize in many ways), or suffered debilitating physical or psychological traumas that prevented their moving past military service to live productive postwar lives.  Compelling evidence from the war and the postwar years clearly shows that most soldiers, even those on the losing side, found much to celebrate about their often arduous service…The analytical risk of overemphasizing the dark side is that readers who do not know much about the war might infer that atypical experiences were in fact normative ones.  (492)

I’d like to linger on this passage for a bit, because it strikes me as problematic in a number of ways. This is a hell of a broad claim to make, even with the assertion that “compelling evidence” exists for it. “No scholar steeped in sources would suggest that most soldiers committed atrocities?” Really? What sources? Because if you look at what said soldiers were doing in, for example, Indian Country, that claim rings false. Sand Creek was part of the Civil War. The suppression of the Sioux Uprising in Minnesota was part of the Civil War (John Pope sure thought so). Gallagher and Meier’s claims above reflect the unconscious and reflexive “east coast bias” (for lack of a better term) pervading the war’s military scholarship, the occasional nod to “the war in the West” notwithstanding. Moreover, focusing only on soldiers narrows our field of vision too much when making claims about “atrocities.” Scorched-earth campaigns and Indian extermination weren’t necessarily part of the formal, regimented (pun intended) history of the war, but they were atrocities that happened on a fairly wide scale nonetheless. Most emblematic of this were the enormous number rapes committed by soldiers on both sides–a criminally understudied topic, the examination of which would do much to complicate the existing narratives regarding soldiers’ “experiences” and “values.” We encounter anecdotal evidence of this throughout the sources (perhaps we might even steep ourselves in those sources!); for example, Mark Smith’s new book points out how Sherman’s soldiers tended to “beat, rape, and abuse” the slaves who followed them across GeorgiaUnion soldiers themselves described assaults on black women that curdle one’s blood to read.** Those, too, are atrocities. Did “most” soldiers commit them? Perhaps not a numerical majority, but that’s just splitting hairs. Dismissing studies of these behaviors in the manner that Gallagher and Meier do, since they weren’t undertaken by the numerical majority, seems disingenuous at best.

But here’s the larger question, one that is so obvious we don’t even see it: how is killing, or attempting to kill, another human being not an “atrocity?” I know, I know–Gallagher and Meier are using the term in the Geneva-Convention sense, the legalistic framework imposed on wars lest the killing become…I don’t know…too death-y? In wars, killing or inflicting damage on the enemy combatant is normal behavior. But it is not normal in other contexts, which is why we have murder trials and such. So when individual people are put in this abnormal context, where homicide is not only sanctioned, but mandated and celebrated, can we make such facile assumptions about their return to “productive postwar lives” that were free of “debilitating” aftereffects? I don’t think we can. The sources may not describe the damage that was done to soldiers’ psyches, but the sources are also unrepresentative of the whole soldiery–especially after 1863, when conscription brought enormous numbers of illiterate and non-native English speakers into the ranks. Can we so easily dismiss what traumas we do know about as not “normative” because we don’t find the language in our documents? I don’t see historians dismissing the effects of infection and illness on soldiers just because the documents don’t talk about germ theory and communicable diseases. Not having the language to describe something (“shell shock” was a twentieth-century diagnosis) does not mean it didn’t exist. Did it affect a “majority,” even those who “found much to celebrate about their…service?” We don’t know. But I am loath to write these things off as non-normative, as atypical, and thus–at least implicitly–not as worthy of scholarly inquiry when compared to “traditional” military history.

The chief problem, though, is that Gallagher and Meier’s dismissal of “the dark side” carries within it the assumption that the war had a “light side”; or, if you prefer, a “less-dark side.” I would argue that this was simply not the case. If the “dark side” wasn’t the normal experience of combat for Gallagher and Meier, then what exactly was? “War is all hell,” Billy Sherman told us, and I think “all” is the most important word in that claim. To say that certain activities were on the “dark side” is to say that the “regular” features of the war were not so dark after all. It is to claim that the purposeful extinguishing of another human life, and the constant impetus to do so repeatedly, was not dark. Violence becomes banal in wartime, but to use this banality as evidence to suggest that most folks were just OK, thank you very much, when the switch was turned from “war” to “peace” strikes me as tenuous. Seen in this light, war IS the “dark side,” and “atrocities” are at the darkest end of the spectrum–a spectrum which includes the “non-atrocious” (legally speaking) killing, maiming, or raping of other people.

So what do we make of these warnings not to get caught up in the “dark side” of Civil War history? For the reasons I’ve outlined above, I’d suggest that they posit an artificial either/or dilemma. I’ll end this (LONG) post with an excellent–and ironic–passage that I think points us in  the most productive direction:

Unfortunately, our memory of Gettsyburg and many another famous Civil War military engagement usually embraces only incidents on the battlefield. Despite Lincoln’s reminder in the Second Inaugural that all else chiefly depended on the progress of arms, we too often persist in dividing the war into military and non-military spheres. It is long past time to bring the two Civil Wars together. We can take a welcome step in that direction by expanding the definition of military history, finding ways to break down barriers between those writing traditional battle and campaign studies and those pursuing topics far from the arena of battle. Ideally, we will reach a point where a composite narrative promotes a unified understanding of Walt Whitman’s “many-threaded drama.”

This passage, from the 44th Annual Fortenbaugh Lecture at Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute in 2005, is excellent because it gets over that artificial dilemma and recognizes that war and wartime are indeed complicated, complex, “many-threaded dramas”–something that I’m trying to convey in my own current work. But it’s also ironic, given the subject of this post, as it comes from a lecture entitled “Whither Military History?”–a lecture which was given by…wait for it….

Gary Gallagher.

So let’s stop freaking out. Instead, let’s allow ourselves to “steep in the sources,” and maybe then we can continue to discover the rich, complex scholarly brew that the Civil War and Reconstruction eras truly are–on and off the actual fields of battle.


*Civil Discourse is a newly-launched blog on that aims “to connect academic and public audiences in discussion of the Civil War and the periods surrounding it.” If you haven’t yet checked it out, you should; they’re doing great work!

**Mark M. Smith, The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 144.

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7 thoughts on “Taking a Walk on the Civil War’s “Dark Side””

  1. I remember the centennial “celebration” of the Civil War in the 1960s (I was a teenager then.) A lot of it was sanitized and glorified–all noble motives and not much blood. Even then some concern existed that the it was too much so, that the horrors you describe were pushed under the rug or downright ignored. History was not served well by that approach.

    1. Agreed! The whole “guns-bugles-noble causes” approach does its own violence to the historical record.

  2. I agree with my sister about the portrayal of the war during the centennial events during the 1960’s. However, I have found more recent scholarship has provided a more balanced view. There have been many stories that have not held up. For example, that 7,000 Union soldiers were killed during the first 30 minutes of the Battle of Cold Harbor. Gordon Shea in his 4 volume history of the Overland Campaign of 1864 notes that Union casualties over the several days of the Cold Harbor Battle totaled about 3,500. He does not, however, shy from describing the horrors of Spotslyvania Court House, the Wilderness etc. I have found that the war in the west is included in studies and the grim guerrilla warfare in Kansas and Missouri has long received attention. Not all of the stories of the destruction by Sherman’s March to Savannah have held up. Lincoln, Grant, Sherman and Sheridan realized that only total war would end the conflict given the Confederacy’s refusal to recognize the inevitability of their defeat The ability of the Confederates to continue depended on supplies and thus the Union Armies focused on eliminating those supplies which were supplied by civilians. Most Americans did not see blacks as equal whether they were in the Confederacy or not. Most in the north had never encountered a black person. Manning’s “What this cruel war was over” based her claim that about 75% of Union soldiers favored emancipation on a sample of the first 100 soldiers who commented on emancipation in letters home and other documents. 100 out of over 1 million Union soldiers does sot stand up as good history. We need to remember Confederate atrocities as well: forcing free blacks into slavery at Gettysburg, the massacres of US Colored Troops, Andersonville prison camp etc. The war in the east has received emphasis because most of the deciding battles were fought there. While the points Kevin has mentioned in his article are important, we need to remember that one reason the military history has received more attention is the plain fact that casualties numbered over 800,000. This is far more than any other American casualties in wars in which the United States has been involved. What is missing in many newer accounts is the importance of “Union” to the North. The war was not just about ending slavery. There was also a great emphasis in the North of citizen soldiers going to war for their country and then returning to civilian life, this contrasts with several recent studies that argue that the Civil War was the beginning of American militarism and imperialism. The South brought on a great deal of suffering on itself by starting a war they could not win and unnecessarily prolonging it. I think we need to heed Gallagher’s comment about viewing the past through are present views: “an approach that … assesses the motivations and behaviors of the Civil War generation through the analytical prism of current social and cultural norms. A largely ahistorical exercise, it almost always creates an impression of a benighted, unworthy North. Although it is important to know how northern society dealt with race and gender and how it conceived of freedom, liberty, and opportunity, simply describing the many ways in which wartime northeners fell short of later standards of acceptable thought and behavior yields little understanding” I look forward to reading Kevin’s book.

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