Pressures from the Home Front

While Confederate women and civilians pressured their sons, husbands, brothers, and fellow-citizens into fighting, those men, like one lieutenant wrote, “asked himself the question: What is this all about?  Why is it that 200,000 men of one blood and one tongue, believing as one man in the fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man, should in the nineteenth century of the Christian era be thus armed with all the improved appliances of modern warfare and seeking one another’s lives?  We could settle our differences by compromising, and all be home in ten days.”

There were, of course, reasons aplenty that compromising would have been a satisfactory end to the war—it had causes and reasons that existed outside the battlefield as well as on it—but this brings us to the Narrative’s distinction between what the war was “about” for those who fought it and for those who did not—for those, in some cases, who caused or prolonged it.  While the former, at the war’s outset, may not have understood what war “means,” by the time this Confederate officer lies in the fortifications outside of Petersburg, writing under starlight, it has been brought home to him and his comrades-in-arms quite clearly, “a grim struggle for survival,” all the more so for his side once the reality of numbers and food set in during the winter of 1864-5.

Whether Foote, or his narrator (because I do want to try to keep them distinct, in a least some small way) believed that Confederate enlistees and conscripts ultimately resented those on the home front who pressured and shamed them into fighting (we’ll leave alone those who, like Forrest, dragged them to the lines at gun- and sword-point), he does not condemn those Union officers who did blame the Confederate home front for causing and prolonging the war:

“This may seem a hard species of warfare,” he [Sherman] declared, “but it brings the sad realities of war home to those who have been directly or indirectly instrumental in involving us in its attendant calamities.”  Such, after all, was one of the main purposes of the expedition, and if, in its course, southern women had been subjected to certain discourtesies in their homes, there was a measure of justice in that as well, since they were among the fieriest proponents of a war that might have ended by now except for their insistence that it be fought to the last ditch.  Many of the soldiers believed as much, at any rate.  “You urge young men to the battlefield where men are being killed by the thousands, while you stay at home and sing The Bonnie Blue Flag,” an Ohio colonel heard one of his troopers lecture a resentful housewife, “but you set up a howl when you see the Yankees down here getting your chickens.  Many of your young men have told us they are tired of war, and would quit, but you women would shame them and drive them back.”

Perhaps the narrator does not condemn the Union hard-heartedness (and methods of warfare that, today, we may well consider to be questionably legal at best) not out of intellectual sympathy, but because he recognizes that Fate itself seems determined to drive home the same message to Confederate civilians.  Take the results of Hood’s preference for destroying his own army at Franklin rather than set aside what he thought were a set of very elegantly drawn battle-plans:

Nor was the horror limited to those who had been actively involved; Franklin’s citizens now knew, almost as well as did the few survivors among the men they had sent away three years ago, the suffering that ensued once the issue swung to war.  This was especially true of the Carter family, an old man and his two daughters who took shelter in their cellar, just in rear of the initial breakthrough point, while the fighting raged outside and overhead.  Emerging next morning from their night of terror, they found the body of their son and brother, Captain Tod Carter of Brown’s division, Chetham’s corps, lying almost on the doorstep he had come home to when he died.

Other families in Tennessee are more fortunate, and see their soldiers alive—but do not recognize them in their tattered, dirt-coated uniforms and new-won thinness.  As the Narrative draws to a close, what unfolds is, in greater part than has been the case up to now—as, in fact, it must have been during the war—the realization, primarily on the part of the Southern home front, of just what was unleashed onto the continent in 1861—not, mind you, when Carolina voted to secede the December prior, but when its Charleston batteries began firing on Sumter.  If the Civil War, or at least Foote’s Narrative, is tragedy, then Sherman’s march is its anagnorisis.

*          *          *

Two notes on this series of posts:

First, there will, very likely, be only two more on Foote’s Civil War, one on what it argues the war was “about,” and likely another on Davis and Lincoln, but primarily Davis.  I have two more sub-chapters to get through—the end of Kirby Smith-dom and then the war’s aftermath, before I’m going to write begin thinking about them.  Some of you may cheer this turn of events; others may weep tears of sorrow; do as you please, but be warned: this is tempting me to turn back to Faulkner for the first time in some years.

Second, just a quick what-I’m-doing-here: I am interested in this work not because of its role as a monument to the present historical profession, but because it is an important literary achievement.  In earlier times, Foote would have been more easily called an historian; today, writing history with a literary paradigm and design leaves one uncertain whether he sat at his desk and invoked Clio or Calliope.  Foote’s Narrative also has the distinction—unlike many notable literary works—of having worked its way into the American cultural imagination.  (Much of the credit for this goes, probably, to Ken Burns.)  This makes it more relevant—because it is a work that is making an argument about what war, and this war, mean and meant, and about the idea of America.  Others may be more interested in the factual history of the Civil War; my interest (as tends to be the case) falls on the attempts of literature to grapple with and understand it.

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24 thoughts on “Pressures from the Home Front

  1. It’s a fascinating wrinkle, the bloodlust of Confederate women. It clashes quite dramatically with the usual tropes of the home-front in war time. I wonder to what degree it was an attitude Americans shed, at least until McKinley, as a response to the Civil War’s horror. I wonder, too, how men of that age inclined to view women as congenitally peaceful and tranquil reconciled the reality with the “science.”

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    • Perhaps the ‘Confederate women’ instinctively knew that they’d be the primary targets for rape, murder, and pillaging by Yankee bummers? Actually, it’s the primary reason why, to this day, Yankees continue not to be very popular in certain Southern areas of the country.

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      • Sherman is a fascinating character — mostly because he, like Forrest, seemed to have been among the first to recognize, and the best at adjusting to, the nature of this particular war. His attitude toward civilians and their property, however… I don’t think he intended to bring rape and murder to every southerner in his path, but certainly pillage — but quickly recognized that allowing the last would lead to the first two, and sort of shrugged and kept moving toward Savannah. There was seafood there, after all. That and he needed a Christmas present for President Lincoln.

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      • And while one wonders what would have happened had the ANV spent as long in the North as Sherman’s men did behind Southern lines, I’ll go ahead and be the one to bring up that the difference in Confederate behavior during the marches to/from Antietam and Gettysburg reflects rather poorly on Sherman, et al., and rather better on Lee and his lieutenants.

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        • Really? Let’s not forget that Lee and his lieutenants re-enslaved every black person, soldier or civilian, they captured and sent them south. I’m not sure the moral calculus is as clear cut as you make it out.

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          • Steven, you have a point in that the Confederacy considered blacks up North to be Confederate ‘property’, a nasty business to be sure, but that’s why they call it ‘African chattel slavery.’ Unlike his Northern counterpart Lee ordered his troops not to molest or bother Yankee women and children, and for the most part, not a hair on old granny’s head was ever mussed by a rebel soldier. Sadly, many of his Yankee enemies took real natural to rape, murder, and pillage. It provides us, I think, with a look at the two cultures and what was to come. Re: the ‘method’ of war there is a significant distinction between the generals of the Confederacy and the ‘new’ and ‘progressive’ Yankees like Sherman and Sheridan who made systematic war on civilians, I think for the first time in history, though I’ll grant you the Nazi’s learned from it and were better at it.
            As for Gen. Forrest, he was a superior tactican who indeed was ‘there the quickest with the mostest.’

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          • Sherman wanted total war; total war was what he got; it was the cause and result of his march. The cause and result of the two (limited) Confederate incursions was warfare of a more traditional sort. I suppose I bracketed the matter of slavery — which I shouldn’t have done without acknowledging it. The conduct of the marches is a small mark in Lee’s favor that is (in my view) overwhelmed by the cause for which he fought. I just didn’t want Bob to have to be the first/only one to make the distinction about the marches; I don’t think it’s a North vs. South thing to find a “Georgia got what was coming to it” (which I have encountered as a serious belief, not necessarily here, but…) attitude blunt and more than a little galling.

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              • And it’s entirely possible that the war would have been protracted and resulted in more dead and maimed men had Sherman not made his march (you could make a strong case that it’s not only possible but likely), or not made it in the way he did. You could easily transform debate over Sherman into something parallel to debate over Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and, I suppose, Dresden) — but I also think it’s a sign of a healthy nation that we debate these things. I don’t expect a satisfactory answer, certainly not for the end of WWII, but there may come a time when we’re faced with another set of unsatisfactory answers and appreciate the preparation.

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                • Oh, yes! I hope you didn’t take my answer as an endorsement of censorship. Acknowledging that even our heroes (or some of them, at least) could adequately be described (if perhaps ex post facto) as war criminals is a useful tonic against run-away exceptionalism. (There are other benefits, of course, too.)

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                • It also would have gone quite differently if Jackson had gotten his wish for total war from the start. There’s a great moment in ‘Gods and Generals’ where he tells a subordinate that he believes they should raise the ‘black flag’ as a way of ending the war quickly. If those early Union losses had resulted in thousands more dead on the battlefield there may have been an early settlement.

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    • I should add that I’m skeptical of calling it “bloodlust.” What Foote gets at, I think, is more of a matter of a system of honor that people were, maybe, more comfortable with before they had to reckon with its consequences. (Of course, this matter of Confederate women is also one where I wonder about that ever-present matter of historicity and Foote — he works through anecdote sometimes, and in those moments he’s reaching for something other than historical accuracy. I’d call it trying to get at the ‘essence’ of something as opposed to the facts of that same, or some other, something.)

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      • JL,

        I think though that in many ways Southern women were probably just expressing a culture that already existed. I have been trying to find a resource and have so far been unsuccessful. My gut tells me that if you compare the number of Southern and Northern military schools you will find the latter coming out on the short end by a big margin. I know our home state had several.

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  2. The Civil War was one of the first to be photographed. The memorable photographs of seemingly endless lines of dead men at Antietam are burned into my brain and it’s hard for anyone to look at those photographs and not be shocked and horrified. None less than Robert E. Lee wrote that “It is well that war is so horrible, lest we grow too fond of it.”

    Seeing these images surely had an effect on the public’s morale and appetite for war, just as it did during the Great War, Great War Part II, Korea, and Vietnam. But in the 1860’s, one suspects that those photographs got considerably more play in northern newspapers than southern, simply because of access to the photographs and the availability of resources to publish and distribute them. So the home front there got a stiffer dose of visual imagery of the horrors of war than did the home front in the south, which consequently grew less war-weary until the horrors of war were visited within actual eyesight.

    I’m not saying I have prof of any of that, just a theory.

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  3. I have read a lot of speculation about what drove these women to behave this way. The best theory I have heard is that it gave them an opportunity to take a more active role in Southern society. With the men away they were in charge. It created a sort of early feminism that would reappear most dramatically when women entered the workforce in record numbers during WWII.

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  4. Mr. Wall, a history prof in Salon very much supports the argument of your final paragraph and so may be of interest.

    A well done series, JL, and thank you. This was not an area of deep study for me although history is of great interest [only watched fragments of the Ken Burns thing]. I have found your argument persuasive, more a fresh bite on the topic than merely a battle vs. revisionism and hagiography.

    Via InstaP:

    http://www.slate.com/id/2295509/pagenum/all/

    James M. Lundberg: “For all its appeal, however, The Civil War is a deeply misleading and reductive film that often loses historical reality in the mists of Burns’ sentimental vision and the romance of Foote’s anecdotes. Watching the film, you might easily forget that one side was not fighting for, but against the very things that Burns claims the war so gloriously achieved. Confederates, you might need reminding after seeing it, were fighting not for the unification of the nation, but for its dissolution. Moreover, they were fighting for their independence from the United States in the name of slavery and the racial hierarchy that underlay it. Perhaps most disingenuously, the film’s cursory treatment of Reconstruction obscures the fact that the Civil War did not exactly end in April of 1865 with a few handshakes and a mutual appreciation for a war well fought. Instead, the war’s most important outcome—emancipation—produced a terrible and violent reckoning with the legacy of slavery that continued well into the 20th century.”

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  5. Good post…The literary tradition surrounding the Civil War and its legacy is fascinating. Earlier this year, I saw David Blight, an American history professor, give a talk about “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory,” in which he argued that the country’s immediate post-war desire to trumpet re-union and glorify the military actions of both sides took the focus away from the moral battle over slavery that had ignited the war, a paradigm that exists to this day. Blight noted how race came to play a role in the post-bellum generation’s reflections on the war, despite the fact that many did not want to dwell on this ugly aspect of an already-ugly conflict (perhaps explaining why so much seemed to go wrong in the Reconstruction era). In particular, he looked at how the literature of Robert Penn Warren and James Baldwin embodied the legacy of the war; Warren’s “Who Speaks for the Negro” and Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” are hugely important reads for any person looking to see where the Civil War left us 100 years after the fact. While neither writer fought in the Civil War, their lives are still profoundly impacted by it, especially when it comes to race and the American identity.
    …Needless to say, one cannot examine the Civil War in a vacuum of political facts and figures. One needs to hear the stories and consequences, both implicit and explicit. The constant literary examination of its legacy shows how instrumental the War was (and still is!) in the making of our country.

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