The Civil War as seen by those who lived it

May 13, 2007|By Glenn C. Altschuler | Glenn C. Altschuler,Special to the Sun

A People at War

Civilians and Soldiers in America's Civil War

By Scott Nelson and Carol Sheriff

Oxford University Press / 384 pages / $28

The Civil War changed the life of nearly every American. More than 620,000 soldiers and civilians died during the conflict, about 2 percent of the nation's population in 1860. More than 50,000 civilians perished from war-related violence, disease, or starvation. Four million slaves won their freedom. And virtually everyone else was touched by conscription, inflation, absent loved ones and debates about Union, secession and emancipation.

In A People at War, Scott Nelson and Carol Sheriff, who teach history at the College of William and Mary, examine the day-to-day realities of the Civil War as ordinary Americans experienced them. A work of synthesis, more descriptive than analytical, the book "stitches together" the findings of other scholars, adding some "historical scraps to the patchwork" - from diaries, letters, petitions and newspapers.

During the war, Nelson and Sheriff suggest, the people often led their leaders. And they emphasize that the West played a substantial role in the struggle between the North and the South. But the authors are neither vigorous nor rigorous in pursuing these themes. Instead, Nelson and Sheriff present a "worm's-eye" view of the war, with Union and Confederate soldiers and civilians speaking in their own voices about fields invested with flies, stifling heat, "confounding dirty niggers," carnal temptations, battlefield baseball games and profiles in cowardice and courage.

Nelson and Sheriff show how "striking deficiencies in medical knowledge and technology" produced Civil War killing fields. With ambulances scarce, soldiers might spend days where they had fallen in battle, chewing off fingers to cope with the pain. Thousands of men with treatable wounds died from exposure to cold temperatures, drowned in puddles that swelled in a thunderstorm, or expired from infection, before or after they reached a hospital. Fearing the anonymity of death, soldiers improvised, pinning scraps of paper to their clothes or carrying into battle a pocket Bible, with the names and addresses of family members in it.

Gastrointestinal disease, Nelson and Sheriff emphasize, generated more fatalities than bullets and bayonets. Army rations - salted meat, hardtack, coffee and beans for Union soldiers and fried corn for the Rebs - were often undercooked or contaminated, causing diarrhea or dysentery. So Union soldiers eagerly anticipated deliveries of dried fruit (as well as fresh underwear) from the United States Sanitary Commission. And many were willing to commit a dollar or more of their monthly pay to purchase preserved meat, fruit pies or condensed milk from enterprising entrepreneurs like Gail Borden, who canned, bottled and pasteurized his way to a fortune.

The home front was not nearly as lethal. But, as a soldier's mother observed, life was filled with "Cair, Anxiety, and Tryals." Draft riots erupted in New York City in 1863, with more than 100 people killed and millions of dollars in property damage. In the "shell-expectant" South, according to Nelson and Sheriff, disruption and privation were the norm. The inflation rate was 9,000 percent. Bread riots erupted in many communities. The Confederate government instituted a draft and toward the end of the war conscripted black slaves. Most ominously, of course, as Union generals ordered "a devastation more or less relentless" against citizens who "manifest local hostility," 250,000 Southerners fled their homes.

Whites in areas occupied by Northern troops, Nelson and Sheriff point out, had to weigh principles against pragmatism. An inhabitant of Middle Tennessee who did not swear allegiance to the government of the United States, for example, would be forcibly relocated. Those who took the pledge and did not keep their word forfeited $1,000 in property. Army policemen could arrest a Confederate sympathizer at will - and often abused their power, seizing cotton as contraband and then selling it themselves.

"As the ravages of war reached grotesque proportions," Nelson and Sheriff indicate, the search for new army recruits intensified. The U.S. government, they reveal, violated international law by hiring an agent, John Bigelow, to induce European men to emigrate and enlist. The Lincoln administration also resorted to conscription. But the Enrollment Act of 1863 allowed draftees to pay $300 to evade service - or hire a substitute. Of 776,000 names drawn, 316,000 procured exemptions, and only 46,000 actually served (along with 118,000 substitutes). After the Emancipation Proclamation, the administration allowed blacks to muster into the Union Army. About 200,000 did. Paid less than their white counterparts, most black soldiers were assigned to latrine duty and trash removal.

When they fought - in segregated units - brave black soldiers caused some bluecoats to rethink their racial attitudes. But, along with the folks at home, most white soldiers wished above all that after Appomattox they would "return to life as they had known it." That "simple desire," Nelson and Sheriff conclude, "was not to be realized." But, then again, change came slowly in postwar America. And a color-blind society became a much-deferred commitment.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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