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Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War

by Gerald F. Linderman

It should come as no surprise that  Civil War soldiers were unable to build a psychological bomb shelter to protect themselves from the dehumanizing effects of war. Until the publication of Gerald F. Linderman’s Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War in 1987, however, most historians joined the public in believing that the vast majority of soldiers triumphed over the horrors of battle, emerging from the conflict psychologically unscathed and returning home with their idealistic value system intact. Linderman boldly reinterpreted the war’s impact on the rank and file. The enthusiastic recruits of 1861, according to the author, did not persevere as we had once believed. Rather, they became embittered and hardened to a war of unimaginable suffering that eventually turned them against the very people for whom they were fighting—the people back home.

Relying on an array of letters and diaries from soldiers on both sides, Linderman shows how the early volunteers believed that individual action, inspired by manly courage, would decide the outcome of the war. In other words, the side that demonstrated the most courage would ultimately prevail. Courage, in fact, stood at the very core of Civil War armies. The average soldier deeply resented and resisted formal military discipline, but remained in the ranks knowing that any dereliction of duty might signify a loss of courage, thus leaving him susceptible to the ignominious charge of cowardice. Officers in particular were compelled to exhibit extreme bravery in order to gain the loyalty of their men. A Texas brigade rejected one of its officers who was a native of France, saying that they wanted no “damn frog-eating Frenchman” whose name they could not pronounce. Feelings quickly changed during an ensuing battle at the Washita River, where that colonel’s reckless bravery earned him confidence and respect.

Disease was the first and most serious challenge to the men’s idealistic notions of soldiering. The capriciousness of this invisible enemy demonstrated the impersonal and unjust nature of war. Scores of brave, virtuous men were lost to hideous sicknesses while others, for no explainable reason, survived. An orderly, rational world, which these men so badly desired, crumbled around them as they gradually lost their civilian perspective and adopted the outlook of a veteran soldier. The first taste of combat further undermined assumptions about courage. The brave were almost always the first to die, while the cowards almost always survived. Rifled weaponry and entrenchments created slaughter pens, not battlefields of honor. The survivors staggered out of the chaos questioning the value of courage, since it almost always led to vast human destruction. Linderman brilliantly reminds us that the image of the heroic Civil War soldier is too simplistic, too general to accurately capture the experience of all men, especially those who came to reject the extreme expressions of bravery in battle.

What especially troubled veterans on both sides was their growing callousness to the suffering and barbarity around them. The men referred to the process as hardening, and few could accept or explain how their civilized sensibilities were lost during the war.

One Confederate artillerist confided to his mother in 1864: “It sometimes astonishes me to perceive how hardened I am becoming; the sight of death, sickness or distress no longer have their effect upon me. Such variety of suffering has met my eye that all alike seem indifferent to me.”

Many Northern and Southern soldiers succumbed to despair so deep that they felt alienated from the people back home. This is one of the most important contributions of Embattled Courage. The divide between civilian and soldier, as Linderman shows, left many in the rank and file bitter and disillusioned. The author probably exaggerated the degree of disillusionment. High ideas and the value system of courage continued to serve many men until Appomattox. However, Embattled Courage must be considered a landmark study for its ability to penetrate the conflicted, ambiguous and dark inner world of the Civil War soldier.


Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here