The View from the Ground: Experiences of Civil War Soldiers
Edited by Aaron Sheehan-Dean
Index, 266 pp., 2007. The University Press of Kentucky, 663 South Limestone St., Lexington, KY 40508-4008, $40 plus shipping.
Reviewer: Ethan S. Rafuse
Ethan S. Rafuse is associate professor of military history at the U. S. Army Command and General Staff College. His publications include A Single Grand Victory: The First Campaign and Battle of Manassas; George Gordon Meade and the War in the East; and, most recently, McClellan's War: The Failure of Moderation in the Struggle for the Union.
The View from the Ground is a manifestation of two significant developments in Civil War scholarship in the past few decades: the explosion of interest in the common soldier and the eagerness with which presses have published compilations of essays examining particular topics in Civil War history.
As is the case with most essay anthologies, there are parts of this one that will appeal to some readers more than others, although few will fail to be impressed with the level of research and clear writing that distinguish every essay.
After providing a brief introduction, Aaron Sheehan-Dean offers a useful essay on how scholarship on the common soldier has evolved over the past few decades. Chandra Manning's examination of how the views of white Union soldiers on emancipation and race developed over the course of the war will leave readers eagerly anticipating publication of her award-winning dissertation on Civil War soldiers and slavery.
Jason Phillips then studies how Confederate soldiers viewed the enemy and provides a provocative challenge to the traditional notion of a "brother's war" by offering impressive evidence of Southern hatred and contempt for their foes. The interaction between soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia and the home front is the subject of Lisa Laskin's essay, while David Rolfs's examines how Northern soldiers faced the challenge of "reconciling their wartime experiences with their faith."
The Civil War soldier's religious world is also addressed in Kent Dollar's essay, which describes how devout Christians endured the challenges army life posed to their faith prior to the great religious revivals that began in late 1862.
Timothy Orr then provides a study of how Pennsylvania soldiers responded to the rise of antiwar sentiment in the North. The venomous language contained in the resolutions soldiers adopted in support of Republican candidates and the threats of violence contained in them lead Orr to the ominous conclusion that had the Republicans "failed to achieve electoral success in 1863 and 1864 . . . it seems likely that in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, the results might have been dire."
Charles Brooks follows by using the case of a colonel in the Texas Brigade as the point of departure for an insightful discussion of ideological factors that shaped the relationships between officers and their men. After Kevin Levin's excellent examination of the contest between veterans from Virginia and other Southern states over the history and memory of the battle of the Crater, an afterword by a leading figure in the revival of scholarship on the common soldier, Joseph Glatthaar, closes the book.
After reflecting on the literature in the field and future directions it could and should take, Glatthaar commends recent scholars for taking on Walt Whitman's famous prediction that the "real war" of the soldiers would never get in the books. If nothing else, this volume indicates this effort is far from exhausted.
That its contributors are nearly all junior scholars suggests that we should anticipate many more years of fine scholarship that will not only enhance our understanding of the common soldier, but of other facets of Civil War America as well, such as the role of religion, notions of community, and the contest to shape the image of the war in history and memory.