On Violence and the American Civil War, Part I

What do we know or think we know about the violence in the American Civil War? We certainly recognize the truth of Walt Whitman’s now well-known quip that the “real war” will never get in the history books. Our present struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan increasingly remind us that the reality of war remains a distant prospect for observers, even with “embedded” reporters and instant video satellite feeds from the battlefield.

Americans have tended to see the wars Iraq and Afghanistan as somehow especially violent and arbitrary–IEDs that seem to randomly maim and kill, mortar rounds carelessly lobbed into cities, and ambushes unleashed on supply convoys. Every war, it seems, spawns its own brand of special violence: mustard gas and machine guns in World War I, blitzkrieg tank attacks in World War II, land mines and jungle warfare in Vietnam.

Yet, the American Civil War has rested in American consciousness as somehow an exception, because it has largely escaped both the horror and diminishing that come with a special focus on the character and structure of its violence. Perhaps, it is the seeming grand purpose of the large “set-piece” battles that Americans want to preserve and hold on to, so that the violence, while acknowledged, remains at arm’s length, distant, removed, and on the margin of an otherwise clearly noble, purposeful, and comprehensible struggle. Our view of Civil War violence is quite contained–limited to the large battle and especially its major “charge.”

Violence in the Civil War, however, was shocking, diverse, public, and terrifying. We might consider two images from the war to help us see some of this. One concerns Ephraim C. Dawes, an ardent young Republican and Union army volunteer from Ohio. Dawes fought at Shiloh and other major western battles with distinction. He saw many fights in three years and wrote home that the roar of battle was something he could not adequately describe. Later at the Battle of Dallas in May 1864 in Georgia, Dawes suffered a serious wound. He had his entire lower jaw shot off. Dawes’ wound was painful and ugly. He could not talk, he could not eat, and he was by his own admission grossly disfigured. As he rode the train from Georgia north toward Union hospitals, people stared. Dawes explained to his family: “This trip was the most trying experience of all. Twenty six hours on a hard board seat over the rear trucks of a second class car. My wound was sloughing freely, very painful and offensive. I was nervous and weak. People looking at me annoyed me almost beyond endurance.” At the Union hospital in Nashville, he was given “bichlorinated soda” which when applied to his wound was like “liquid fire.”

A second image concerns the Atlanta Campaign. Much has been written about the destruction that Sherman’s army wreaked on Georgia and South Carolina. One of Sherman’s soldiers, George F. Cram, went back into Atlanta in late October to review the devastation. He found nearly every house “riddled and torn by our shells, here a tall chimney knocked down and there a portico carried away.” He could see how desperate the landscape of war was, for “along each side of the railroad were holes in the bank where families had crawled in to escape our iron showers.” Fine shade trees were “hacked to pieces.” Cram had little sympathy for those caught up in the destruction, but his detail deserves attention. Families burrowed into the railroad embankment in a desperate attempt to escape the violence that surrounded their world.

Violence, Randall Collins tell us in Violence (Princeton University Press, 2008), is difficult for people to perform, even soldiers, no matter how much drill they receive, no matter how much they believe in the cause for which they are fighting. The type, level, and outcome of violence of the Civil War was contingent on the situation, and we should pay attention to what Collins calls the “micro-processes” that structure these violent encounters. When we look more closely at a Civil War battle and its aftermath, and the violence within these events, we see a range of images more modern than we might expect. Refugees fled before armies, people hugged the earth as artillery screamed overhead and slammed into buildings, and wounded soldiers horrified strangers. Indeed, the literature of Ambrose Bierce and Stephen Crane have placed these realities before us more fully than many histories.

Perhaps the key dimension to the modernity of the Civil War was not its systematizing of soldiers, nor its organization of command structures, nor even, perhaps especially, its degree of ideological commitments. Rather, the modern aspects of the war can be seen in the types of situational violence it prompted: snipers, guerrillas, panicked civilians, wounded veterans, and commanders trying to create a decisive engagement by routing the enemy through massive violence.

About William Thomas

William G. Thomas III is a professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the John and Catherine Angle Professor in the Humanities. He teaches digital humanities and digital history, 19th century U.S. history, the Civil War, and the history of slavery.
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