The Common Man and the Civil War: A Special Historical Feature

 This article was originally published in The Daily Pulp on January 21, 2013. Pulp editor Alex Urban edited the article. The cover photo is archived from the original web layout.

At the start of Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed historical film, Lincoln, President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) interviews several Union infantrymen — two veteran African American soldiers (Colman Domingo, David Oyelowo), and two novice white soldiers (Lukas Haas, Dane DeHaan). The black men speak solemnly about the vicious battle at Jenkins’ Ferry and the political culture surrounding the Civil War, while the white men, who we suspect have not yet seen major fighting, reflect the naivety of new recruits. After this fascinating opening scene, the film then shifts away from the battlefield for most of its running time, focusing instead on the political battle surrounding the 13th Amendment.

Lincoln is a great cinematic achievement, both for the Shakespearean nuances of its script and its virtually flawless recreation of 19th century Washington, D.C. Nonetheless, as I sat in a packed movie theatre watching Spielberg’s grand achievement unfurl onscreen, I could not help but wonder about those soldiers from the first scene. I wanted to see more of the African American soldiers’ experiences at the front, particularly how they dealt with racism. I wanted to follow those inexperienced white soldiers as they shed their innocence and learned about the seriousness of the war. Additionally, I wished to see more of General Ulysses Grant (Jared Harris), who appears for only four minutes or so in the entire film.

Spielberg’s movie is a Civil War film, but the actual war and its soldiers remain, for the most part, in the wings while the spotlight stays on the President.

Lincoln therefore reflects a trend apparent in much of the literature on the Civil War. Many notable books focus on the famous names of the era — Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, etc. — and not so much on civilians and citizen-soldiers. This trend is not wholly surprising, since statesmen set the policies for the war. Still, with the ongoing sesquicentennial of the Civil War era (1861-1865), it is important that ordinary people receive their historical due, even as Lincoln, Grant, and other leaders receive their deserved praise.[i]

After all, through grassroots mobilization and voting, the interests of average citizens could be transformed into collective action, thereby affecting the course of the war. For example, famous politicians like Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens spent years agitating for secession and policies favoring the South,[ii] but secession was finally triggered by large groups of ordinary people voting to leave the Union. The voting process took two forms: (a) popular referendums; and (b) conventions of state legislators, most of whose names are long forgotten.[iii]

Similar to the power wielded by Southern voters and convention delegates, a significant peace movement flourished in the North, thanks to Northern citizens who gathered together and lobbied for their beliefs.[iv] Opponents of the war hoped that, when totaled together, the ballots cast by individual actors would place a peace-oriented Democrat in the White House.[v] In short, like-minded citizens could potentially stymie the great Abraham Lincoln, for all his power.

The men serving in the Confederate and Union armies also exercised great influence because the outcome of every battle rested on their shoulders. In the eyes of generals and their subordinate officers, individual soldiers represented a sort of human capital: New military technology was useful, but 19th-century wars were still won based on the number of troops on each side.[vi] “Many soldiers did indeed fight bravely,”[vii] but desertion became a serious problem, impairing tactics and morale as the war progressed.[viii] Officers recognized the power held by runaway troops, so strong steps were taken to dissuade individuals from deserting. In a letter to a colleague, Dr. Loren Ames, a denizen of upstate New York embedded with the Union army in Virginia,[ix] mentions that the “Army for a few days has been very quiet, as a general thing,” then abruptly says that “tomorrow two deserters are to be shot.”[x] Ames’ matter-of-fact rhetoric implies that such executions — the suppression of the common man’s ability to undermine the army — took place regularly.

Community service was another notable method for individuals to influence the war effort. After major battles, local inhabitants often went out to assist the wounded, and organizations like the United States Sanitary Commission sent volunteer nurses to army hospitals near the front.[xi]Religious imperatives were also known to play a role in wartime service. The United States Christian Commission, a wartime initiative of the YMCA, sent doctors and ministers to work with troops for brief tours of duty.[xii] The conditions were austere, as Dr. Ames (a U.S.C.C. volunteer) attests in his writings. After arriving at the Union encampment in City Point, VA, Ames wrote that, “We had to grope our way in the dark to find the Office of the ‘Christian Commission,’ where we were furnished with blankets and a floor to make a bed upon.”[xiii] Additionally, Ames could “hear cannonading […] every night.”[xiv] Nonetheless, devoutly Christian volunteers like Ames felt that someone must attend to the troops’ physical and spiritual wellbeing, since “the deeper sources of [soldiers’] combat motivation had to come from inside themselves,”[xv] and so they put up with the hazardous conditions.

Voting, participating in civilian or volunteer organizations, and military service are fairly logical ways for ordinary people to exercise influence, but there were less obvious ways by which common people affected the Civil War. In particular, correspondence between soldiers, their families, and their friends was essential to the war effort. Without letters from home, “the solidarity with comrades in arms was insufficient [for soldiers] to sustain their commitment.”[xvi]

In 1864, after failing to meet anyone from his native upstate NY, Dr. Ames urgently wrote to a colleague, “We have not yet heard from home — news from there would be very acceptable.”[xvii]Similarly, sailor Charles Post[xviii] told his relatives in 1862 that “I have not heard from home since I left. We are going from place to place so much that I have almost got discouraged looking for letters; cannot tell now where to have them directed.”[xix] These letters A report of an individual’s credit rating scores history prepared by a credit rating scores bureau and used by a lender in determining a loan applicant’s creditworthiness. show a real hunger for communication with family and friends, implying that letters were crucial for military morale, and that civilians were simply expected to write to loved ones away at war.

It must be acknowledged that soldiers sometimes had practical reasons for writing home. In 1862, Henry M. Vanderbilt, a soldier from the same area as Ames, wrote to the doctor about his dissatisfaction with camp conditions, including the near-impossibility of finding postage stamps.[xx] Clearly, Vanderbilt expected more than mere words (perhaps some supplies, or a word from Ames to Vanderbilt’s commanding officer) in return.

Simultaneously, though, this document portrays a soldier who needs to vent his frustrations, possibly in a way that officers would consider insubordinate. Vanderbilt’s letter suggests that, in the eyes of most troops, a channel had to remain open between home and the army.

A similar need to express frustration – to process the indignation and horrors of war – can be found in the letters of Charles Post: “[E]verything that is visible looks like waste and destruction, not a fence nor an out building to be seen, occasionally an old mansion left by its old occupant, but now ocupyed [sic] by the officers and men of the northern army…. [I]n fact, it looks to be impossible for the debt to ever be paid, to say nothing of the demoralizing effect it has upon the country, however large its resources may be.”[xxi]

Considering that millions of soldiers wrote letters like those of Henry Vanderbilt and Charles Post, it can be argued that letter writing acted as a form of therapy for the troops. On paper, these men could pour out their feelings, improving their ability to focus on their jobs. Since soldiers were “hardened by the suffering and killing they […] experienced,”[xxii] reminders of home were all the more important: They kept soldiers from drifting wholly into barbarism.

Of course, there were some actions on the part of individual Americans that really had no effect on the war, except within small circles of people. Consider a letter written by George Breck, a Union soldier “[i]n the field, near Gettysburg, PA,” over the course of three days (July 2-4, 1863).[xxiii] Breck informs one Alfred Reynolds that his brother, Gilbert Reynolds, was wounded and captured by Confederates on July 2. However, a Union “doctor is in their hands […] and if so, I am glad for Gilbert’s account, for he will receive good care.”[xxiv] As the battle progresses, Breck repeatedly goes back to expand the letter, which grows increasingly powerful:

It was a terrible battle yesterday. We were completely overwhelmed by inferiority of numbers…. We are now in position, near Gettysburg Cemetery, a very high and commanding position. Both armies are concentrating all their forces in this vicinity, and I dare say the greatest battle of the war will be fought at this place. I know not when I shall have an opportunity to mail this. I will leave it open for the present, hoping I may hear something more about Gilbert today….[xxv]

Ultimately, Breck’s Union comrades won the Battle of Gettysburg.[xxvi] By August of that year, Gilbert and his friends, “all well and sound,” were serving once more in the Union campaign.[xxvii], [xxviii]

Breck’s letter has a number of important implications for understanding individual actors in the Civil War. In case he is killed, Breck continually updates his message with the latest news about Gilbert, so that Alfred will receive the most complete and up-to-date information possible. Writing such a detailed letter (or, really, any letter at all) could change the recipient’s attitudes toward the war. What if Gilbert had been killed, or taken to a P.O.W. camp? There is no telling how such news might have affected Alfred’s support for the war. On a larger scale, the contents of individual letters, exchanged through the home-battlefront link, could shape the thoughts of entire populations regarding the Civil War.

Breck’s choice to write the letter also suggests a desire to leave a personal testimony, should he die. The memories of one infantryman do not figure in the geopolitical implications of a war, yet it makes sense that an infantryman – a witness to war – would want others to know that he participated in the greater military effort. Individuals want to be seen as significant, even as part of a much larger collective.

Lastly, Breck’s letter represents an immense act of kindness toward the Reynolds family – one man going above and beyond to assert his morality, against the carnage unfolding around him. This letter has no national significance at all, yet to those who loved Gilbert Reynolds (and George Breck), the letter had all the significance in the world.

The primary sources cited herein have not seen the light of day in years, and they are kept in just four boxes at the University of Rochester library. Thousands of other boxes exist in that archive alone, and “hundreds of significant manuscript collections” are “scattered all over the United States,”[xxix] in both the North and South. When one thinks about the Civil War’s vast paper trail, representing the testimonies of so many individuals, the significance of average Americans becomes quite apparent. And it is worth thinking in detail about the Civil War’s participants, not just because of Lincoln’s box office success and the 150th anniversary of the war, but also because Civil War-era papers and diaries preserve a major part of our national heritage.

For all the generals and statesmen, there were millions more citizens and citizen-soldiers, who weathered supply shortages, implemented battle plans, and feared for loved ones at the front. Whether acting as a unified group putting a collective plan into action, or as individuals comforting each other in the smallest ways imaginable, ordinary Americans left their mark on the Civil War, and on their country’s history.[xxx]


[i] When starting this article, I was particularly influenced by the words of David Donald: “The younger generation of American scholars have neither the time nor the money for […] elaborate research in primary sources…. Instead, it is stylish to produce sweeping interpretive essays, generally in American intellectual history – books of the sort Carl Becker used to characterize as having been written without fear and without research” (David Donald, “American historians and the causes of the Civil War,” The South Atlantic Quarterly 49 (1960): 353). Bearing Donald’s words in mind, I conducted original archival research at the University of Rochester and included this material in my argument, thereby adding something new to Civil War historiography.

[ii] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 159, 167, 241, 244, 254.

[iii] McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 235, 255; Edward L. Ayers, In The Presence Of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003), 98-99. It should be acknowledged that several referendums went against secession, and so Southern legislators had to outmaneuver the popular will in order to secede from the Union.

[iv] Ayers, 214-216, 328-329, 349; McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 760-765.

[v] McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 769-771.

[vi] Southern leaders (particularly the yeomen planters) placed value in another kind of human capital – slaves. However, there is a crucial difference between military and slave-economy perceptions of human capital: Slaves were literally a measure of Southern wealth, while each soldier represented a strategic asset to an officer’s unit, or a general’s army. (Refer to: Roger Ransom, “The Economics of the Civil War,” in EH.net Encyclopedia, Economic History Association, 2010, accessed April 24, 2012, http://eh.net/encyclopedia/article/ransom.civil.war.us.)

[vii] James M. McPherson, For Cause & Comrades: Why Men Fought In The Civil War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 6.

[viii] McPherson, For Cause & Comrades, 137-138, 156; Ayers, 357-358.

[ix] “Loren Jesse Ames,” in A-Z List of the Manuscript Collections, [Dept. of] Rare Books, Special Collections, & Preservation, University of Rochester Libraries, Department of Rare Books & Special Collections, accessed July 1, 2012, http://www.lib.rochester.edu/index.cfm?page=779.

[x] Loren Jesse Ames, to N. Seymour, Esq., 3 November 1864, Loren Jesse Ames Papers, box 1, folder 2, University of Rochester Libraries, Department of Rare Books & Special Collections, Rochester, NY.

[xi] Patricia L. Richard, Busy Hands: Images of the Family in the Northern Civil War Effort (New York: Fordham University Press, 2003), 182; McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 480-485.

[xii] Office [of the] United States Christian Commission (Bank Street, Philadelphia, PA), “Commission,” 24-25 October 1864, Loren Jesse Ames Papers, box 1, folder 2, University of Rochester Libraries, Department of Rare Books & Special Collections, Rochester, NY.

[xiii] Ames.

[xiv] Ames.

[xv] McPherson, For Cause & Comrades, 61.

[xvi] McPherson, For Cause & Comrades, 131.

[xvii] Ames.

[xviii] “Charles Post,” in A-Z List of the Manuscript Collections, [Dept. of] Rare Books, Special Collections, & Preservation, University of Rochester Libraries, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, accessed July 1, 2012, http://www.lib.rochester.edu/index.cfm?page=1095.

[xix] Charles Post, to Amelia Post, 17 March 1862, transcribed in: Edward Magnani, “Captain Charles Post: The Life of a Long Island Steamboat Captain And His Adventures in the Civil War,”Steamboat Bill 60, no. 2 (2003), 121. Post’s letter consists of extensive run-on sentences, so I have taken the liberty of updating his grammar for clarity.

[xx] Henry M. Vanderbilt, to Loren Jesse Ames, 6 May 1862, Loren Jesse Ames Papers, box 1, folder 2, University of Rochester Libraries, Department of Rare Books & Special Collections, Rochester, NY.

[xxi] Post, 17 March 1862; Magnani, 120.

[xxii] McPherson, For Cause & Comrades, 141.

[xxiii] George Breck, to Alfred Reynolds, 2-4 July 1863, Gilbert H. Reynolds Papers, box 1, folder 4, University of Rochester Libraries, Department of Rare Books & Special Collections, Rochester, NY.

[xxiv] Breck.

[xxv] Breck.

[xxvi] Breck.

[xxvii] Gilbert H. Reynolds, to his wife, 31 August 1863, Gilbert H. Reynolds Papers, box 1, folder 5, University of Rochester Libraries, Department of Rare Books & Special Collections, Rochester, NY.

[xxviii] “Reynolds, Gilbert H.,” in A-Z List of the Manuscript Collections, [Dept. of] Rare Books, Special Collections, & Preservation, University of Rochester Libraries, Department of Rare Books & Special Collections, accessed July 1, 2012, http://www.lib.rochester.edu/index.cfm?page=1103.

[xxix] Donald, 353.

[xxx] Other sources I consulted, but did not specifically cite within this article: Josephine Glass Campbell, When Sherman Marched Forth From the Sea: Resistance on the Confederate Home Front (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003); John Cimprich and Robert C. Mainfort, Jr., “The Fort Pillow Massacre: A Statistical Note,” The Journal of American History 76, no. 3 (1989): 830-837; Myron H. Clark, License No. 172. (registering Loren Jesse Ames as a “Physician and Surgeon”), 9 October 1862, Loren Jesse Ames Papers, box 1, folder 2, University of Rochester Libraries, Department of Rare Books & Special Collections, Rochester, NY; Avery Craven, The Coming of the Civil War (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1942); C.C. Goen, Broken Churches, Broken Nation: Denominational Schisms and the Coming of the American Civil War (City not listed: Mercer, 1985); Earl J. Hess, Liberty, Virtue, and Progress: Northerners and Their War for the Union (New York: NYU Press, 1988); Grady McWhiney and Perry D. Jamieson, Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage(Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1982); Steven Mintz, Moralists and Modernizers: America’s Pre-Civil War Reformers (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995); George C. Rable, Civil Wars: Women and the Crisis of Southern Nationalism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989); Charles P. Roland, An American Iliad: The Story of the Civil War (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991); and Union Army orders, muster-in, rolls, passes, etc., 1861-1863, Gilbert H. Reynolds Papers, box 1, folder 7, University of Rochester Libraries, Department of Rare Books & Special Collections, Rochester, NY.

Cover photo from: http://the-daily-pulp.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/lincoln.jpg.

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