Lt. Spalding in Civil War Louisiana
A Union Officer’s Humor, Privilege and Ambition
Michael D. Pierson
Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 2016, 208 pages
Book Review published on: May 19, 2017
Writers have spilled enough ink on the topic of the American Civil War to fill one of the Great Lakes, at least one of the smaller ones. The smoke had barely cleared before authors produced battle and campaign histories, and the participants contributed their own memoirs. Professional historians have taken up the mantle, producing first biographies of leaders, anthologies of the important battles, and more recently, studies of individual soldiers to the point where even minor figures now have book-length biographies and nearly every regiment has a published history. Carrying this examination to its logical conclusion, Michael D. Pierson has now produced an entire book based on a single, seven-page letter written by a Vermont officer to a friend in the summer of 1862.
While the book’s premise might seem shaky, Pierson makes it work by using supporting sources to provide a social and cultural history of junior officers in the American Civil War. (This topic has only recently garnered attention, including the publication of Andrew Bledsoe’s Citizen Officers: The Union and Confederate Volunteer Junior Officer Corps in the American Civil War, also by LSU Press in 2015.) He argues that Lt. Stephen Spalding, though wealthier and better-educated than many of his peers, typifies the challenges citizens faced in leading soldiers in the most destructive war in the country’s history. Spalding enlists out of a sense of duty and honor. However, he is quickly overwhelmed by the challenges of leading his company (after the company commander and adjutant absent themselves in less demanding duties) in a rear area during a lull in operations in the stifling and enervating heat of South Louisiana in the summer of 1862, and with all the temptations of New Orleans to distract his troops and erode discipline. Pierson relates how Spalding struggles to maintain order despite notable personal lapses, including public intoxication and visits to houses of ill repute, which are the primary focus of his humorous letter.
But, after an adjustment period during which he commits himself to his profession, Spalding seems to find himself as a leader, growing into his role and recognizing that the Army is more than just a cure for boredom at home or a means to satisfy his desire for adventure. He realizes that military service, as it has done throughout history, might provide a means to better himself and improve his social standing, if only he can survive. Committed to earning a higher place in both his regiment and in society, Spalding places himself at the head of a futile charge on the strong works defending Port Hudson in the summer of 1863, with predictable results.
Historians debate the utility of detailed “microhistories,” wondering if, as anthropologist Clifford Geertz has asserted, we really can learn more about ourselves by “thick descriptions” of societies, cultures, and individuals. Senior officers may find accounts of Spalding’s struggles insignificant, having faced and mastered the challenges of company command. But junior officers and cadets will likely find inspiration in Spalding’s efforts to grow into his role at the same time that he is finding himself.
Book Review written by: Christopher M. Rein, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas