Sunday, August 5, 2012

Character and the American Civil War

Above all, the generation that fought the war had that quality which Emerson ascribed pre-eminently to the English—character. It is an elusive word, as almost all great words are elusive—truth, beauty, courage, loyalty, honor—but we know well enough what it means and know it when we see it. The men in blue and in gray who marched thirty miles through the blistering heat of the Bayou Teche, went without food for days on end, shivered through rain and snow in the mountains of Virginia and Tennessee, braved the terrors of hospital and prison, charged to almost certain death on the crest of Cemetery Ridge,closed the gap at the Bloody Angle,ran the batteries of Vicksburg and braved the torpedoes of Mobile Bay, threw away their lives on the hills outside Franklin for a cause they held dear—these men had character. They knew what they were fighting for, as well as men ever know this,and they fought with a tenacity and a courage rarely equaled in history.” Henry Steele Commager, from the introductory of The Blue and The Gray. 1950

You will note that Commager makes no distinction between the sides of the conflict, either implicit or directly. Neither side was found lacking in character. The soldiers in the American Civil War had it, had to have it, in order to stand up to the rigors of battle, the tedium of camp, and the loneliness of separation from hearth and home. To be sure not all were of the highest character as evinced by the straggler, deserter, (which of course does not apply to the footsore or homesick man that returned to the ranks) and bounty jumper, but for those that remained with their army, battle upon battle, or stood to their posts in areas where the only musketry heard was from hunting parties, character was the binding that held these men to their country, regiment and messmates.

Webster's New International Dictionary (1910) defines character thus:

The estimate, individual or general, put upon a person or thing, a favorable one being implied when no qualifying adjective is added: Reputation: Repute.

The soldiers reputation was at stake and for many that was all he had in the world. To lose that would be to lose everything.

Webster's also defines character as being:

Individuality, especially as distinguished by high moral excellence: good mental or moral constitution.”

It gave the strength to defend ones convictions and principles irregardless of hazard and hardship. It was backbone. It was the quality that would lead men like Robert E. Lee of Virginia to resign his place in the United States Army and fight for his home and the Confederacy while another Virginian, George H. Thomas, would remain in his and fight against it.
Major General George H. Thomas
General Robert E. Lee

It led farm boys, mechanics, lawyers, ministers, and myriad others to fight for the maintenance of union or the dissolution thereof in an effort to set up a new nation. Men of both sides joined the fight to defend against perceived threats to their prosperity or way of life. Some fought merely because their neighbors and kin did and owed loyalty to them. Many held no fanciful notion or concern for the lofty motives espoused by the political leaders of the day, but many did.

Pvt. William Jackson Eskew, 13th Virginia Infantry
Pvt. George Kimbrue, 93rd Indiana Infantry

Character would lead to many “moments of mercy” as this monument to Richard Kirkland, “The Angel of Marye's Heights” typifies. James Madison Stone of the 21st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry tells of an incident he had at Cold Harbor on the morning of June 3, 1864.

Moments of Mercy
I found a live Johnny; there were a number of dead men lying about among the caissons and
dead horses; but one I saw moved. I went up to him and greeted him and asked him if he was badly wounded. “Yes” he said,, “I suppose it is all up with me”... I inquired if I could do anything for him. “Yes”said he, “I wish you would turn me over on my side so I can see the sun rise.” The sun was about to appear over the eastern horizon.”

Stone then went to find water for the dying man but in the space of 15 minutes before he returned, the man died. [1] Compassion for the suffering is but one of the sub parts of character.

Character is indeed an elusive word. Loyalty, compassion, duty, morality, and the courage of ones convictions all form parts of the overall meaning of the word. It would be wise for those of us that study the American Civil War to remember the character of the men that fought it, no matter which side he fought for. We must study the common soldier to understand, or at least endeavor to understand, 19th century character and how it shaped the politics and society, or, perhaps, how these shaped the character of the men. The soldiers of 1861-1865 were the ordinary citizens of 1860 and they were the people that built this country into what it was then. They, in 1865, would begin building it into what it has become. It was and is based on character. Pray God it never ends due to a lack of it.

The Picket

1- Personal Recollections of the War, Stone, James M., 1918, p 173-174

Photo credits: Library of Congress Pictures Collection

William Jackson Eskew 13th Virginia Infantry-

George Kimbrue 93rd Indiana Infantry

Original from Flickr by Clair Houk, (unforth)

No comments:

Post a Comment