Friday, November 23, 2018

Booknotes: The War for the Common Soldier

New Arrival:
The War for the Common Soldier: How Men Thought, Fought, and Survived in Civil War Armies by Peter S. Carmichael (UNC Press, 2018).

While there's no particular shortage of books describing and interpreting the experiences of Civil War soldiers in camp, on the march, and on the battlefield, new ideas and perspectives are always welcome. Central to Peter Carmichael's new book The War for the Common Soldier is the author's broad-themed attempt to answer the age old question of how Civil War soldiers coped with "the brutal and unpredictable existence of army life."

From the description: "Based on close examination of the letters and records left behind by individual soldiers from both the North and the South, Carmichael explores the totality of the Civil War experience--the marching, the fighting, the boredom, the idealism, the exhaustion, the punishments, and the frustrations of being away from families who often faced their own dire circumstances. Carmichael focuses not on what soldiers thought but rather how they thought. In doing so, he reveals how, to the shock of most men, well-established notions of duty or disobedience, morality or immorality, loyalty or disloyalty, and bravery or cowardice were blurred by war." Chapter headings "Comrades, Camp and Community"; "Providence and Cheerfulness"; "Writing Home"; "Courage and Cowardice"; "Desertion and Military Justice"; "Facing the Enemy and Confronting Defeat"; and "The Trophies of Victory and the Relics of Defeat" hint at the wide range of discussion.

More: "Digging deeply into his soldiers' writing, Carmichael resists the idea that there was "a common soldier" but looks into their own words to find common threads in soldiers' experiences and ways of understanding what was happening around them. In the end, he argues that a pragmatic philosophy of soldiering emerged, guiding members of the rank and file as they struggled to live with the contradictory elements of their violent and volatile world."

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