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.1 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.2
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 to join the army, and faced the same threat of execution if captured.
Glatthaar describes the government’s unjust and discriminatory treatment of black soldiers in pay (until 1864 black soldiers were paid less than whites), promotion, medical care, and the disproportionate employment of black units as labor battalions and in other menial rear-echelon assignments. An important theme in his book (as in the film Glory) is the campaign by black soldiers and their officers to get the opportunity to fight. Only by proving themselves in combat could blacks overcome the stereotypes of inferiority and prove their “manhood.” They proved it in several battles when they got the chance, but that chance remained limited by army policies that kept most black units serving in garrisons and working on fatigue details. Thus their rate of death in combat was only one third that of white Union soldiers, while their mortality rate from disease was twice as great.
Nevertheless, the courage and effectiveness of several black units in combat won increasing if sometimes grudging respect from initially skeptical or hostile whites. One white soldier wrote in 1864:
The copperheads of the North need not complain of them being placed on an equal footing with the white soldiers, since the white soldier himself does not complain. After a man has fought two years he is willing that any thing shal[l] fight for the purpose of ending the war. We have become to[o] familiar with hardships to refuse to see men fight merely because their color is black.
A white officer added: “The truth is they have fought their way into the respect of all the army.” This was an exaggeration; many white soldiers retained their prejudices. But others were converted by what The New York Times described in 1864 as the “prodigious revolution which the public mind everywhere is experiencing.”
Forged in Battle is by no means the first study of black soldiers in the Civil War; several previous books have told important parts of that story. But it uses more of the soldiers’ letters and diaries—including rare material from black soldiers—and concentrates more intensely on black–white relations within these regiments than any other study. Glatthaar’s thesis is expressed by the title: loyalty, friendship, and respect among white officers and black soldiers were fostered by the mutual dangers they faced in combat. This was not universally true, to be sure. Some officers had gone into black units for promotion or other self-serving motives; many of these retained their racist attitudes toward the soldiers they commanded. But most officers probably shared the attitude expressed by a captain in a letter to his wife:
A great many [white people] have the idea that the entire negro race are vastly their inferiors—a few weeks of calm unprejudiced life here would disabuse them I think—I have a more elevated opinion of their abilities than I ever had before. I know that many of them are vastly the superiors of those (many of those) who would condemn them to a life of brutal degradation.
In trying to show there was growing respect between blacks and whites, though, Glatthaar succumbs to the fashionable practice of condemning all whites as racist. “Prior to the war,” he writes of the men who became officers in black regiments, “virtually all of them held powerful racial prejudices” that were subsequently modified by experience. Powerful racial prejudices? That was not true of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, or Robert Gould Shaw, or Norwood P. Hallowell, or many other abolitionists and sons of abolitionists who became officers in black regiments.
Indeed, the contrary was true; they had spent much of their lives fighting against the race prejudice endemic in American society, sometimes at the risk of their careers and even their lives. That is why they jumped at the chance to help launch an experiment with black soldiers which they hoped would help African-Americans achieve freedom and postwar civil equality. Perhaps by modern absolutist standards of racial egalitarianism (which few could meet today), these men harbored some mildly racist or paternalistic feelings. But to call these “powerful racial prejudices” is to indulge in what William Manchester has called “generational chauvinism—judging past eras by the standards of the present.”3
Race is the analytical category that counts most for Glatthaar; in Iver Bernstein’s study of the New York draft riots, the class feelings of the rioters are central while race and ethnicity are seen as less important. The worst mob violence in American history took place during the four days of rioting in New York City in 1863, although the death toll of 120 should be compared with the 11,000 soldiers killed and mortally wounded at Gettysburg two weeks earlier. The riots exposed severe stresses in Northern urban society, but, contrary to Bernstein’s view, these stresses may have run along the lines of race and ethnicity more than along those of class. The rioters were mostly Irish Catholic immigrants (and their children); they mainly attacked the members of New York’s small black population. For a year, Democratic leaders had been telling their Irish constituents that the wicked Black Republicans were waging the war to free the slaves who would come North and take away the jobs of Irish workers. The use of black stevedores as scabs in a recent strike by Irish dockworkers made this charge seem plausible. The prospect of being drafted to fight to free the slaves made the Irish even more receptive to demogogic rhetoric.
The provisions in the Union conscription law that allowed a drafted man to avoid service by hiring a substitute or paying a $300 commutation fee gave an added edge of class bitterness to the controversy, producing the slogan of “Rich Man’s War but Poor Man’s Fight.” In actual practice this slogan proved untrue. Unskilled workers and Irish-Americans were proportionately under-represented in the Union army. Draft insurance societies and appropriations by city councils or political machines to pay the commutation fee of any drafted man who did not want to go enabled poor men to buy their way out of the draft almost as readily as rich men.
Nevertheless, the draft became a hated symbol of everything the working-class population of New York disliked about the war. In the riots they demolished draft offices and other federal property, burned black neighborhoods and the Colored Orphan Asylum; they lynched a dozen black men, attacked the premises of the New York Times and New York Tribune (both Republican), and sacked the homes of leading Republicans and abolitionists. In the end most of those killed were not blacks or abolitionists but rioters, shot down by police and by troops rushed to New York from Gettysburg.
Iver Bernstein tells the story of these awful events succinctly in the early pages of his book. But that is not his main purpose, and for a detailed account of the riots one must still read Adrian Cook’s The Armies of the Streets: The New York City Draft Riots of 1863.4 Bernstein’s aim is to use the riots as a means of understanding “the intricate and often obscure processes that gave rise to modern urban America.” Unfortunately, his argument is also intricate and often obscure. It reaches back to the 1850s to analyze the workers’ quest for security, status, and power in New York’s economy and polity. Workers were divided by skill or craft, and sometimes by belonging to different ethnic groups, but according to Bernstein, they sought consolidation and class unity in the face of the capitalist transformation that was eroding old skills and values. The capitalist elite was also divided, partly between older merchants and bankers, with ties to the South and to foreign mercantile houses on one side and to the rising industrialists on the other. Most of the new industrialists were Republicans, with strong ties to the national administration during the Civil War. Many of the mercantile elite were Democrats. During the riots they took a “soft” position toward the mobs, hoping to calm the violence through persuasion and selective repression. The Republican industrialists—whose property was often the target of rioters—took a “hard” position, calling for martial law and a shoot-on-sight policy. Bernstein views the riots as a climatic moment in the contest between workers and the Republican industrialists. The war, the draft, and ethnic and racial hatreds were merely the catalyst that sparked the violence.
For Bernstein the main beneficiary of the efforts following the riots to resolve and reshape the class conflicts that had got out of control was the Tammany Hall faction of the Democratic party. Tammany supported the Union war effort with a flair for patriotic oratory and symbolism; after the war the Tammany machine ruled the city for a half dozen years under Boss William Marcy Tweed. But the Tweed Ring collapsed under the weight of corruption and its inability to prevent another bloody riot in 1871, this one between Protestant Scots-Irish and Catholic Irish. The failure of several craft union strikes for the eight-hour day in 1872, Bernstein writes, shows that
Industrialists emerged as the ultimate winners of the 1863 crisis, and their acquisitive individualism and repudiation of working-class rule were now triumphant; workers in the draft riot trades met their final moment of defeat.
Bernstein draws on studies of the “crowd” (not mobs) in early industrial Europe and America to develop his thesis of the class roots of the draft riots. Denied political power through existing elite institutions, crowds took to the streets to demonstrate against selected institutions of oppression. They acted in a “rational” manner in this selectivity, in contrast to the irrational mob frenzy depicted by earlier and more conservative historians. For Bernstein, the first day of the draft riots, in which skilled workers led not very destructive attacks on selected institutions they associated with class domination, conformed to this pattern. Only on the second day did the riots escalate into seemingly mindless, irrational large-scale violence committed by unskilled Irish workers who struck out savagely in all directions. Even then, though, a “rational” pattern can be discerned during the riot’s second stage, whose targets were blacks (because they acted as strikebreakers) and Protestant antislavery Republican industrial leaders who served as hated symbols of the privileged middle class to the Irish population.
Bernstein’s two stages seem too schematic. The riots did grow in violence and viciousness as they went on, to be sure, but the participants and targets and patterns of crazed bloodlust were there from the beginning. Rioters burned the Colored Orphan Asylum the first day and lynched blacks that day as on subsequent days. The frenzy of mob psychology would seem to offer a better basis for explanation than that of the rational crowd. And powerful ethnic or racial antagonisms seem to have been more active than class consciousness.
After one reads about the clashes between Irish immigrants and blacks, Michael Fellman’s account of guerrilla warfare in Missouri during the Civil War seems to take place in a different country. A border state of divided allegiances, Missouri suffered more than any other region from the internecine war of neighbor against neighbor “inside” the larger Civil War of North against South. Bands of Confederate partisans (“bushwhackers” in Unionist parlance) ambushed, murdered, and burned suspected Unionists and their property, and tied down thousands of Northern troops by hit-and-run attacks in their rear. In response, Union counter-insurgency forces used similar tactics in an often futile effort to run the guerrillas to earth and to intimidate the civilian population (the guerrillas’ wives, mothers, and sisters) that fed and sheltered them. As in other guerrilla conflicts, the army controlled the towns and the daylight hours but the partisans controlled the countryside and the night. The guerrillas’ need for sanctuary in rural districts and the army’s search-and-destroy missions forced neutral civilians to choose sides or suffer the consequences—usually both.
This was a war with no pretense to the romantic images of honor, courage, or glory that often attach to big-battle narratives of the Civil War. It was ugly, dirty, and vicious. It was in many ways a continuation of the antebellum conflict along the Missouri-Kansas border between proslavery Missouri “border ruffians” and antislavery Kansas “jayhawkers” for control of the destiny of Kansas territory.
The bushwhackers and jayhawkers took no prisoners, killed in cold blood, plundered, and pillaged (but almost never raped or killed white women). Both sides committed atrocities that make the New York draft riots look like a Sunday-school picnic. Thousands of soldiers, guerrillas, and civilians lost their lives; whole counties were burned out and virtually depopulated. The most notorious guerrilla chieftain, William Clarke Quantrill, led a raid across the Kansas border in August 1863 and murdered more than 150 unarmed men in the hated antislavery town of Lawrence. The equally infamous “Bloody Bill” Anderson took twenty-four unarmed Union soldiers off a train in Centralia in September 1864, shot them in the head, then turned on a posse of pursuing militia and slaughtered 127 of them, including the wounded and captured. And so it went for four years and longer. The hatreds and feuds of the war lingered for decades. The postwar outlaws Jesse and Frank James, Cole and Jim Younger, and others who darken the pages of Missouri history and myth got their start as Confederate guerrillas, riding with Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson.
Fellman’s is the best account I know of this “inside” war—in Missouri or in any of the other border regions where it flared with lesser but still powerful intensity. He has mined official archives and collections of the letters of Union soldiers and of civilians (guerrillas left few letters) to get inside their minds. The analytical categories of ethnicity, gender, and class appear here, though at times in a marginal fashion. To a considerable degree, ethnic and cultural divisions defined the two sides in Missouri’s civil war. German-Americans and Yankee settlers formed the core of Unionist strength in the region; southern-born farmers (derisively labeled “Pukes” by adversaries) provided most of the guerrillas and their sympathizers. A chapter on women noncombatants, who were sometimes compelled to become auxiliaries to combat, shows sensitivity to the tensions between traditional female expectations and the exigencies of a society in wartime.
How much class tensions contributed to this conflict is more ambiguous. One school of interpretation has portrayed the guerrilla outlaws as defenders of a rural order of yeoman farmers against the encroachments of a capitalist market economy represented by Yankee soldiers and Unionists during the Civil War, and by banks and railroads afterward. Jesse James and his confederates were therefore not bloodthirsty killers but rather “social bandits” who fought a losing battle against the soulless forces of capitalist transformation. This thesis is roughly analogous to Iver Bernstein’s portrait of many draft rioters as workers who attacked the institutions and symbols of industrial capitalism.
Such portraits reflect the currently dominant views by social historians of American farmers and workers in the nineteenth century. 5 For Missouri, a romanticized version of this thesis emerged during the postwar decades in the form of a “noble guerrilla” tradition that fused with a “noble outlaw” legend to glamorize Jesse James, Cole Younger, and the others as Robin Hoods who took from the rich and gave to the poor. Roughly the same legend became incorporated in dozens of Hollywood movies.
Michael Fellman begins his book as if he were going to advance a similar interpretation. But he edges away from it and ultimately repudiates it:
Journalists, pulp fiction writers, and Hollywood filmmakers, selling dreams to that huge audience which continues to enjoy the presence of the noble outlaw, have had every reason to perpetuate the legend rather than to realistically portray selfish bank robbers and cold-blooded bushwhackers.
Fellman interprets the behavior of bushwhackers and jayhawkers as a matter of psychology. Many of the guerrillas were psychopathic killers, nihilistic lovers of violence. The war gave quasi-official sanction to their atavistic impulses. The frustration of Union commanders with their failure to suppress the guerrillas, and the hair-trigger nerves of Union squads patrolling the menacing countryside where every innocent-looking farmer might be a bushwhacker, caused them to lash out with random violence that could only go on escalating. For many of the youthful guerrillas and soldiers, this violence was a sort of rite of passage; to kill was to prove one’s manhood. “It is useful,” writes Fellman, “to employ the mythopsychological language of oedipal rebellion in analyzing this process: displacement and destruction of the father’s authority—replacement with the knightly, true young brotherhood.” Fellman quotes with approval the postwar reflections of a Union officer who had discovered while fighting guerrillas in Missouri that
There exists in the breasts of people of educated and christian communities wild and ferocious passions…which may be aroused and kindled by…war and injustice, and become more cruel and destructive than any that live in the breasts of savage and barbarous nations.
True enough; the experience of the twentieth century has taught the same dispiriting lesson. But Fellman’s psychological insights still do not answer the question of why Confederate guerrillas took to the bush in the first place. Did they fight just for the love of fighting? Partly. Were they defending traditional rural communities against alien Yankee capitalism? This seems doubtful.
Curiously, Fellman overlooks the most likely answer to the question. The fundamental cause of the Civil War was slavery. This institution was not as entrenched in Missouri as in the states that seceded. But it was the chief factor in determining the allegiance of those Missourians who cast their lot with the Confederacy. It also seems to have been the principal factor for many guerrillas. A seminal study of the social origins of Missouri guerrillas by Don Bowen (not cited by Fellman) shows that they came from families that were three times more likely to own slaves and had twice as much wealth as the average Missouri family. Cole and Jim Younger were the sons of Jackson County’s richest slave owner. If there was a class or ideological dimension to Missouri’s guerrilla warfare, it appears not to have been one of yeomen farmers versus capitalists, but of slave owners versus the advocates of free labor.6
A final observation is prompted by this account of terror and destruction in Missouri. Anyone who writes and lectures these days about the Civil War is asked frequently whether the Confederacy could have won if Southerners had resorted to guerrilla warfare on a large scale. A recent study has suggested that their failure to do so may have been “a major reason why the South lost the Civil War.”7 This is doubtful. Guerrilla tactics might have prolonged the war, perhaps for years, but the Confederacy would probably have lost in the end. The Union army would have turned loose the hard-bitten cavalry of Philip Sheridan and Judson Kilpatrick against the guerrillas. The entire South might then have become like Missouri. Robert E. Lee was wiser than these latter-day theorists who fantasize a Confederate victory through guerrilla warfare. When one of his subordinates suggested at Appomattox that Confederate soldiers could escape to the bush and become guerrillas rather than surrender, Lee said no. With Missouri perhaps in mind, he foresaw that the guerrillas “would become mere bands of marauders, and the enemy’s cavalry would pursue them and overrun many sections they may never [otherwise] have occasion to visit. We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from.”8 Lee then rode off to meet General Grant.
April 12, 1990
Richard H. Kohn, “The Social History of the American Soldier: A Review and Prospectus for Research,” American Historical Review, 86 (1981), pp. 553–567, Maris A. Vinovskis, “Have Social Historians Lost the Civil War? Some Preliminary Demographic Speculations,” Journal of American History, 76 (1989), pp. 34–58. ↩
Joseph T. Glatthaar, The March to the Sea and Beyond: Sherman’s Troops in the Savannah and Carolinas Campaigns (New York University Press, 1985); Earl J. Hess, Liberty, Virtue, and Progress: Northerners and Their War for the Union (New York University Press, 1988); Randall C. Jimerson, The Private Civil War: Popular Thought During the Sectional Conflict (Louisiana State University Press, 1988); Gerald F. Linderman, Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War (Free Press, 1987); Reid Mitchell, Civil War Soldiers: Their Expectations and Their Experiences (Viking, 1988). ↩
New York Times Book Review, February 4, 1990, p. 33. ↩
University Press of Kentucky, 1974. ↩
See especially Steven Hahn and Jonathan Prude, eds., The Countryside in the Age of Capitalist Transformation: Essays in the Social History of Rural America (University of North Carolina Press, 1985); Bruce Laurie, Artisans into Workers; Labor in Nineteenth-Century America (Hill and Wang, 1989); and, for Missouri, David Thelen, Paths of Resistance: Tradition and Dignity in Industrializing Missouri (Oxford University Press, 1986). ↩
Don R. Bowen, “Guerrilla War in Western Missouri, 1862–1865: Historical Extensions of the Relative Deprivation Hypothesis,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 19 (1977), pp. 30–51. ↩
Richard E. Beringer, Herman Hattaway, Archer Jones, and William N. Still, Jr., Why the South Lost the Civil War (University of Georgia Press, 1986), p. 342. ↩
Douglas Southall Freeman, R. E. Lee: A Biography, 4 vols. (Scribner’s, 1934–1935), Vol. IV, p. 84. ↩