The War for the Common Soldier Cover

The War for the Common Soldier

How Men Thought, Fought, and Survived in Civil War Armies

Peter S. Carmichael

University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2018, 408 pages

Book Review published on: June 28, 2019

How do soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines endure the hardships in today’s modern era of war and conflict? What about soldiers hundreds of years ago? The War for the Common Soldier How Men Thought, Fought, and Survived in Civil War Armies looks deeply into what Civil War soldiers from both the North and the South had to endure on a daily basis. The question that the author, Peter S. Carmichael, focused on was: “How did Soldiers of the Civil War endure the brutal and unpredictable Army life during the conflict?” Carmichael, serving as the Robert C. Fluhrer Professor of Civil War Studies and director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, explores the totality of experiencing the Civil War. He looks at such things as drills, fighting boredom, idealism, exhaustion, punishments, and the frustrations of being away from family as well as the hardships families dealt with while soldiers were away.

His focus is how soldiers thought rather than their actual thoughts. The author demonstrates that well-established notions of duty, disobedience, morality (or the lack of it), loyalty, along with bravery or cowardice were all blurred by war. By digging deeply into the writings of the studied soldiers, one can easily glean that there really was not a common soldier. By examining the soldiers’ words through letters and journals, Carmichael attempts to find a common thread in how the soldiers understood the events around them and their experiences as soldiers. He argues that pragmatism emerged as the prevailing philosophy of soldiering, which presented men on both sides an outlet to live and struggle with certain contradictory elements of their violent and chaotic world.

Pragmatism, the author contends, gave soldiers the flexibility to act in ways that ultimately assisted them in keeping faith with their idealism. Adaptability, the key ingredient in pragmatism, allowed soldiers to adjust themselves to the ground conditions of war, so that the ideas inherent within idealism could bend. For example, by acting out of military necessity, Sherman’s army rampantly foraged by destroying Southern property but rarely descended into all out plundering. Army life was controlled by circumstances, adaptability best describing how Union and Confederate soldiers navigated their world on a daily basis. As one Minnesota soldier wrote, “We want a man of greater flexibility of character … who knows how to adapt himself to circumstances.” Veteran soldiers came to realize that in order to survive, one had to assume a situational view of life.

The book relies heavily on case studies of men from all sorts of backgrounds. The case study approach allows the author to position the words of the soldiers within the flow of events over an extended period of time. It also reflects a wide spectrum of social, racial, class, and regional backgrounds of men who fought on both sides of the Mississippi River (Western and Eastern theaters of the American Civil War). All the men reflected upon their place in the ranks but made meaning of their experiences in radically different ways. The patriotism of some soldiers waned due to the Army’s economic pressure, while others persevered even as their families became destitute.

The book is divided into seven chapters, with each addressing key aspects of the soldier experience. All the chapters are interlinked by a common query: “How did soldiering cause shifts in attitude, beliefs, and emotional dispositions?” The first chapter delves into the “job” of being a soldier and what it meant to be a citizen-soldier. It then goes into such aspects as: writing home, courage and cowardice, desertion and military justice, facing the enemy and confronting defeat, and how soldiers came to terms with the end of the war. This was a well-written and cited book that explored the ways that providential pragmatism and emotional cheerfulness served soldiers when God’s intentions appeared indecipherable. Though easy to read, there were a few moments of confusion remembering which soldier was the focus of each chapter. This is a great read for Civil War historians, military service members of all ranks, and anyone interested in the psychological workings of one in a highly stressful environment.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Stephen Harvey, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas