The Historiography of Civil War soldiers

I thought I would take a brief break from my thesis work this evening to talk about what I have observed as I stumble through the historiography of Civil War soldiers that is part of my thesis. There are many great works on soldiers written in the last sixty years that form an overall historiography of soldiers. Some of these works include:

The Life of Johnny Reb (1943) by Bell Irvin Wiley
The Life of Billy Yank (1952) by Bell Irvin Wiley
Embattled Courage (1987) by Gerald Linderman
Civil War Soldiers (1988) by Reid Mitchell
To Appomattox and Beyond (1996) by Larry Logue
For Cause and Comrades (1997) by James McPherson

According to Steven Woodworth’s The Loyal, True, and Brave: America’s Civil War Soldiers (2002), there are three distinct schools of thought in the literature on Civil War soldiers. The first was established by Bell Wiley’s generation and looked at “the humanness” of the soldier, focusing on the ordinary aspects of the soldier and did not stress the heroics (Woodworth, xi). After this period, the scholarship split into two camps. One camp is characterized by Linderman’s Embattled Courage (1987) and sees soldiers as victims the social forces that acted upon them. This school revolved around the growth of disillusionment among soldiers by mid-war (Woodworth, xi-xii). The other school is represented by James McPherson and Earl Hess stresses the ability of soldiers to persevere and overcome the bleak attributes of war that Linderman argued disillusioned the soldiers. In addition, this school of thought stresses the importance of the soldier’s story (Woodworth, xii).

Now you are probably asking, Dan, where do you fit in in all this? My thesis focuses on camps of instruction in Illinois and the camps’ effects on the soldiers and communities in Illinois. I am stressing the importance of the camps as part of the transition process from civilian to soldier. Most scholars that I have looked at in trying to discover the historiography tend to focus on the soldier while in the field, in battle and between. The period of initial training that occurred in the camps is largely overlooked, except for mere description. Scholars on soldiers, I argue are not looking at the transition from civilian to soldier, but the transition from soldier to veteran. There may be many reasons for this, from lack of interest since it is before the battles and lacks the attention-grabbing qualities of battle, to lack of understanding, as most people that I mention the concept of camps of instruction to do not know what they were, which is sad. To understand an army, one must understand the training process that creates a soldier, as without that training, the army is nothing more than an armed mob.

As for which school I find myself in, I do not like to be pigeon-holed into one area (this includes research areas, as I am curious about many things), but I come down on a mixture of the Wiley school and McPherson/Hess. The ordinary descriptive nature of Wiley appeals to me, as does the perseverance angle put forward by McPherson/Hess. I believe that the soldiers’ heroics should be stressed and that their story must be told. I hope that more scholars will focus on the training period of soldier in the Civil War, but not before I have finished my work, as I do have to finish my thesis and ultimately write my dissertation. If any scholars studying soldiers know of any other schools that I have missed, I would love to know, so that I can include them here.

5 thoughts on “The Historiography of Civil War soldiers

  1. Dan:
    A brief note. I was getting ready to cite Wiley’s study on ages of soldiers, and realized I had only his paperback issued by LSU, and was looking for original publication data and stumbled on your site. I am a student of the Hampton Legion (S.C.) — a long ways from Illinois, but sometimes the experience was remarkably similar. I have ca 100 digitalized and edited pages for the period of raising of the Legion until it left its initial training camp en route for Virginia, where it remained in camp for several more weeks. The next file is smaller — probably 50 pages, but may offer some insights, from a Confederate perspective. All of this is original material mostly letters and newspaper articles, some postwar reminiscences. I’m working on a history of the Legion, but its been a 25 + year project. The research is more fun than the writing!

  2. Dan:
    I can never do anything in 100 words when 1000 will do, but here goes. I have been a student of the Hampton Legion (S.C.) for 25+ years, and have ca 100 pages of primary digitalized material on the raising of the Legion, which includes its 20+/- days in Camp Hampton when initially raised, and another ca. 50 pages of the period when it arrived in Virginia until it got sent to Manassas on the night of 19-20 Jul 61. Your thesis intrigues me — a good subject not overtilled. If you would like to look at a Confederate perspective I’ll be happy to provide data at no expense to you. E-Mail me or call me at (864) 852-3416 if interested. My research comes from as far north as Boston, southwest to Austin, and northwest to Madison, but I think that the camp material will all be from southern archives. Mostly from letters, both manuscript and newspaper, some diary material, some postwar reminiscences, but heavy use of period newspapers.

  3. Pingback: An Interview With Tom Broadfoot of Broadfoot Publishing | TOCWOC - A Civil War Blog

  4. Please see “To Reach Sweet Home Again: The Impact of Soldiering on New Jersey’s Troops During the American Civil War” by Leonard Bussanich

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