Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers
by Joseph T. Glatthaar
Free Press, 370 pp., $24.95
The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War
by Iver Bernstein
Oxford University Press, 363 pp., $29.95
Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri During the American Civil War
by Michael Fellman
Oxford University Press, 331 pp., $9.95 (paper)
Social history during the past two decades has become the liveliest field of American history. Historians have been using evidence about class, race, ethnicity, and gender to gain insight into Americans’ everyday lives—their work and leisure, their culture and ideology, their relations with one another and with the political and economic systems under which they have lived. From that research have come new perspectives that have increased our understanding of the American past—especially the past lives of blacks, women, and blue-collar workers.
For the most part, warfare has been excepted from social history. Narratives of campaigns and battles and of political leadership remained the dominant themes of histories about America’s wars—including its bloodiest and most consequential, the Civil War. But in recent years military historians have discovered the value of social history, while social historians have become aware of the enormous impact of war on people and institutions. The Civil War in particular mobilized virtually the entire population in an all-out struggle for the survival of conflicting versions of Confederate or American nationalism, and for the preservation or destruction of slavery. It was a war fought by the most literate soldiers in history to that time, and in a society with a free and vigorous press. Millions of young men for the first time left their families for a long time, conscious of taking part in a great historical drama, which they recorded in diaries and in uncensored letters home.
During the wars of the twentieth century, army authorities censored soldiers’ letters and discouraged diary keeping. Thus the American Civil War was in many ways the best-documented war in history. The letters and diaries of participants are an unparalleled source for the perceptions, ideas, and behavior of ordinary Americans in a war that transformed their society and altered the direction of the nation. The more imaginative social historians of warfare have used these sources recently to produce exciting work that tells us much about the impact of the Civil War on ordinary Americans who fought the war and in turn helped to shape its consequences.
The three books under review provide excellent examples of these developments. Perhaps the most timely of the three is Forged in Battle, published at the same time and dealing with the same subject as the movie Glory, which has been a critical and popular success. Joseph Glatthaar, the author of a previous book on the soldiers in William T. Sherman’s army, has drawn on letters, diaries, and memoirs (mostly by white officers) as well as official documents for his account of the 178,000 black soldiers and their 7,000 white officers in the Union army. It is a story of the moral and physical courage of whites who risked social stigma in the North to become officers in “nigger regiments,” and risked execution by Confederates for inciting slave insurrections. It is a story also of courage by black soldiers, most of them former slaves, who risked much …