[ Baring the Iron Hand: Discipline in the Union Army by Steven J. Ramold (Northern Illinois University Press, 2009). Cloth, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 407/505. ISBN: 978-0-87580-408-8 $40 ]
The unruly individualism of the Civil War volunteer soldier has been the subject of much ink in the literature, but seldom have authors approached the breadth of coverage of Steven Ramold's recent contribution Baring the Iron Hand: Discipline in the Union Army. In examining the overall concept, he draws a useful distinction between army discipline on and off the battlefield, with volunteers seeing much more value in the former than the latter. Union soldiers were willing to subordinate themselves to the strictures of army regimentation just enough to make them effective in combat. On the other hand, while in camp or on the march, their insistence on being able to exercise much of the same individual rights and prerogatives of male private citizens was typical, the result of were high levels of insubordination, drunkenness, violence, pillaging, French leave, and desertion.
Although it is clear that officers had to make compromises in the imposition of military discipline upon fiercely independent volunteer soldiers, the author perhaps goes a bit far in giving the impression that strict disciplinarians were rejected wholesale. There are many instances in the literature of strict officers being accepted, as long as their discipline was consistently and fairly applied and the officers proved to be good combat leaders as well as honestly solicitous of the general health and material well being of their men.
At over 400 pages of main text, Baring the Iron Hand is a lengthy study of the subject. It begins with an overview of the military justice system prior to the Civil War. It then moves on to a discussion of the relations between soldiers and their officers, as mentioned above. What follows these introductory chapters are lengthy examinations of the sources and nature of the myriad of disciplinary problems in the Union army, with frequent hearkening back to a major theme of the friction between the military suppression of individual will and the volunteers's rejection of such attempts at restricting the personal freedoms that their own ideas of manhood in a democratic society demanded. One of these privileges was the drinking of copious amounts of alcohol. Rampant insubordination was another, with privates often challenging the authority of their officers in a vast variety of ways. Additionally, while desertion, straggling, and malingering seriously affected the numbers of men available for participation on the battlefield, other issues such as thievery, violence, and property destruction hindered camp and march discipline. Finally, a pair of chapters near the end of the study look at courts martial and punishment, with Ramold effectively refuting the common misconception that nineteenth century American military justice was unfair in implementation and unduly harsh in sentencing. Rather, the courts were often flexible in their application of military law and lenient (often excessively so) in handing out punishment. The author also makes the interesting point that the provisions of the Lieber Code acted more in the manner of providing retroactive legal support of current behaviors on the part of Union officers and men rather than a forward thinking document seeking to curb potential abuses.
The typical structure of Ramold's writing is to put forth a clear statement and then follow it with a large (and one might argue excessive) number of supporting statistics and examples gleaned from the author's extensive research into manuscripts and official records (court and government). More severe editing might have alleviated the often repetitious nature of the narrative, as well as corrected the vast number of typographical errors.
However, none of these editorial concerns detract too much from the essential value of Ramold's book, the most comprehensive to date of Civil War studies attempting serious and scholarly examination of the difficult subject of military justice and discipline within the Union army. Those with a special interest in the court martial process, a rather infrequently discussed subject in the literature, will find the work of great worth. Baring the Iron Hand is recommended reading for all Civil War students, well read and new alike.