Detailed Minutiae of Soldier Life in the Army of Northern Virginia, 1861-1865
by Carlton McCarthy
Historians have a short memory when it comes to the history of their own craft. Beginning in the 1960s, scholars increasingly looked at the past from what they believed was a radically different perspective. No longer content with the “big men” view of history, they started looking at the past from the bottom up, broadening our understanding of who should be included in the historical narrative. An outpouring of rich and valuable books on workers, women, African Americans and poor whites followed this seismic shift in how historians practiced their craft.
Those 1960s academics were not, however, the first to recognize the import role that ordinary people played as historical actors, nor to bring attention to their actions. After the Civil War the authors of regimental histories and soldier memoirs were inspired by the belief that the contributions of individuals also mattered and deserved study.
Carlton McCarthy’s Detailed Minutiae of Soldier Life in the Army of Northern Virginia, 1861-1865 is a marvelous example of what historians in the 1960s called social history. McCarthy, who fought in a prominent Richmond battery, wanted to portray the joys and hardships and the dangers and the tedium of serving in Robert E. Lee’s renowned army.
The author immediately throws down the gauntlet, criticizing other writers for turning the war into an impersonal chess match. Too much attention, McCarthy charged, was being paid to the generals and the great battles—at the expense of the typical soldier. “As time rolls on, the historian, condensing matters, mentions ‘the men’ by brigades, divisions, and corps,” he convincingly argued. “But here let us look at the individual soldier separated from the huge masses of men composing the armies, and doing his own work and duty.”
On the surface McCarthy’s work reads like a folksy tale of life in the field, marching, cooking rations and becoming experienced in combat. Wonderful illustrations by William L. Sheppard accompany the text, reinforcing the overriding romantic purposes of Detailed Minutiae. The drawings always cast the soldier playfully, whether in camp or battle.
Despite these romantic excesses, there is much to be gained from McCarthy’s work. If we are to understand the ideology of Civil War soldiers, which historians have emphasized of late, then we must pay close to attention to the reality of their military service. Their practical day-to-day struggles had a profound impact on the political loyalties as well as the actions of the men.
When officers created their own messes for foraging and cooking purposes, for instance, McCarthy explains how this practical decision radicalized enlisted men against their superiors. “The bond of brotherhood was weakened,” he wrote, as officers and enlisted men began to live in “distinct circles.”
The author’s overriding purpose, however, is to pay tribute to the spirit of comradeship and tremendous morale that existed within the Army of Northern Virginia. In praising Confederate veterans for their fortitude and bravery, McCarthy stayed within the acceptable boundaries of debate in the post–Civil War South, where every Confederate soldier was celebrated for his faithfulness, his courage and his Christian faith. This sanitized view of the Southern rank and file might seem like the harmless musings of nostalgic old veterans, but beneath the Lost Cause veneer of Detailed Minutia is an ugly political agenda intended to vindicate the Southern cause, including slavery and the subordination of African Americans.
In writing about the conflict’s aftermath, McCarthy ridiculed former slaves for their desire to have “freedom,” “liberty” and “manhood,” and he also chastised them for refusing to work under their former masters. His remarks remind us that behind the many anecdotes of sacrifice and selflessness in Detailed Minutia there resides a set of complex political issues that had animated a ferocious Civil War.
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.