Thursday, January 25, 2018

Review of Wills - "INGLORIOUS PASSAGES: Noncombat Deaths in the American Civil War"

[Inglorious Passages: Noncombat Deaths in the American Civil War by Brian Steel Wills (University Press of Kansas, 2017). Cloth, photos, illustrations, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:313/415. ISBN:978-0-7006-2508-6. $34.95]

By traditional calculations, Civil War combat fatalities represent around one-third of the total figure of 620,000 deaths, with the rest succumbing to disease and a great host of other factors exclusive to enemy fire. Clearly, being a Union or Confederate soldier was incredibly dangerous at every stage of the military journey between enlistment and demobilization. Noncombatants also fatally suffered in large numbers, though the true scale remains completely open to debate. Through direct exposure to marauding armies, employment in often unsafe war industries, and general deprivation, civilians found the existing perils of mid-nineteenth century life both magnified and expanded in number during war. It is these lesser-heralded agents of death and their legions of military and civilian victims that are the subject of Brian Steel Wills's latest book Inglorious Passages: Noncombat Deaths in the American Civil War.

Inglorious Passages is organized into themed chapters, with a fair bit of overlap between them. The nature of the study is overwhelmingly descriptive, with introductory-level context and analysis mostly concentrated at the beginning and ends of each chapter. A typical page has multiple accounts of individual and/or group deaths, so it's conceivable that Wills has collected a thousand or more personal anecdotes in his survey. This is quite an impressive compilation. As the notes and bibliography indicate, these personal stories and group tragedies were primarily extracted from the existing literature.

The following paragraphs offer a general rundown of the book's contents. The volume begins with discussion of some of the war's earliest deaths. Railroad accidents were common, with soldiers dying from their own negligent riding practices as well as collisions and derailments beyond their personal control. In many cases, here and elsewhere, alcohol fueled poor decision-making. In camp, soldiers could die from a myriad of diseases and were the victims of accidents of all kinds (from firearm mishandling to drowning while bathing or doing laundry). Suicide and an extreme form of homesick depression they often called "nostalgia" (among other things) felled many individuals. The fighting men could also be their own worst enemies, killing their own comrades through murder, duels, picket line confusion, battlefield friendly fire, and incredibly dumb pranks like tossing live shells into a campfire. Far from the battlefields, disease and malnutrition killed POWs in large numbers, but others were shot by guards or killed by fellow prisoners. Military justice, summary executions, and deadly retaliation for perceived enemy violations of the rules of war also ended the lives of soldiers.

Non-human sources of mortal peril also had to be navigated by Civil War soldiers. Domesticated animals were essential to maintaining the armies but could also be deadly, with many officers and men killed by falls from their mounts or trampled underfoot during a variety of circumstances. As it has always been, the natural world was an unyielding foe to the fighting men of both sides. Wild animals, like snakes, killed men, and mother nature herself in the form of lightning, floods, roaring streams, burning sun, and freezing cold spelled doom for innumerable soldiers.

Naval service had its own particular dangers. Nautical mishaps (both inland and at sea) often proved to be the greatest of Civil War mass killers, with large groups of men lost in a single stroke during countless ship collisions, boiler explosions, swamped boats, and hurricane-level storms. In addition to those group tragedies, individuals were frequently swept off of heaving decks and rigging, and others were lost during careless disembarking or transfers between vessels.

In the civilian sphere, many deadly accidents were tied to the war's unprecedented scale of industrial expansion in combination with masses of inexperienced workers operating in unsafe conditions. The machinery itself in all kinds of industries could be deadly on an individual basis, but small mistakes by workers employed in powder mills and shell/bullet/percussion cap factories led to tremendous explosions and mass casualties. Many of these are described in the text in quite graphic detail. Innocent civilians also died at home from guerrilla attacks, regular soldier abuses, and Indian raids. Additionally, they could be collateral victims of battle, die from exposure as refugees, or succumb to disease epidemics spread by passing armies.

Though the book's conclusion does very briefly recognize the shortened lives of many survivors, those postwar psychological and physical casualties could easily have merited their own chapter in the study. Other readers might be disappointed with the book's overall lack of quantitative features and commentary. It would have been interesting to at least read the author's thoughts on James McPherson's oft-cited (but unvalidated) estimate that up to 50,000 civilians died during the war or Michael Fellman's similarly unsupported speculation that as many as 10,000 noncombatants were killed in Missouri alone.

Inglorious Passages is not an easy book to read all at once. It is an unrelenting encyclopedia of deadly woe, but Wills writes with such grace and pathos for the victims and their tragic circumstances that he eases the reader's own passage through such a dispiriting but important topic. It is a good thing that Civil War readers are frequently reminded of the full range of war's human cost, and Brian Steel Wills's sensitive, unique, and all-encompassing examination of noncombat deaths is a notable contribution to the literature. Highly recommended.

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