Social vs Military History? We need both.

Both Eric and Kevin on their blogs comment on the role of social history vs military history in regards to the Civil War. From my perspective I think you need to have both at least if you want to under stand the experience of the individual solider which is what I have an interest in. That is way I like to read letters from soliders because they provide a window into the social background of the soldiers and how this background affected their intepetations their military experience.

There is one published collection of letters from a solider in the First Maine Heavy Artillery (18th Maine) entitled No Place for Little Boys, Civil War Letters of Union Solider which contains the letters of Peleg Bradford. I have been reading this collection again because it reminds me that know matter what type of label or definition I or any other historian try to put on the soldiers of the Civil War these men were individuals with various political leanings, different views on race and many different reasons for choosing to fight. While many works have portrayed the men of the Union Army as liberators Peleg Bradford would not be one who would fit in to this category. Peleg who enlisted in August of 1862 was not a supporter of the war or of Lincoln’s politics.

“What does the Carmel folks think of this war now days? Are they as black as ever? If they are they had better cum out south and waid in the mud two or three months and then they will want the war to stop. I would like to see some of them long held Republicans out there, and I would like to see them sack a knapsack through the mud. They will stay at home and send poor devils on the fight.”

In a later letter he refers to Black Republicans and describes his dislike for blacks and how he and one of his fellow solider demanded respect from any they met.

“I want you to write who (fought) at Town Meeting and which side beat. If I had been three I would have knocked some of them Black Republican’ heals over their heads. I am a great friend to a dam negro or a Republican. I love a negro so well that when I meet one, I make them to go outside of the fence and give me all the road. I was never born to turn out for a negro. Eugene Burrell when he meets one makes them get down on their knees and take off their hats. He says that he wants to learn them to take off their hats when they meet a gentleman.”

Peleg’s letters go against the well structured image of Mr. Lincoln’s Army of liberators and points out that there were racist feelings on both sides. His letters also show that these men were individuals and products of the society and culture they grew up in so as individuals they had many different virtues, vices and character flaws. I don’t think Peleg Bradford’s racist views should be seen as representative of soldiers in the Union or even within his own regiment but that do illustrate that these racist views existed. In contrast Captain Frederick Carr Howes also of the First Maine wrote that he viewed it as his duty to put down the rebellion and fight for freedom.

“God help our Country in this hour of greatest peril…no peace until Slavery is swept from the land and our Nation in truth shall be the 'home of the free, the land of the brave…My heart burns with me to do something in this great cause, to help establish the government on the basis of human freedom.”

The letters from Howes are not published and remain in a private collection.

For the record Peleg Bradford was wounded outside of Petersburg on June 17, 1864. His right leg was amputated but this wound most likely saved his life as he missed the charge of the First Maine Heavy Artillery on June 18, 1864. Frederick Carr Howes on the other hand was one of the 142 men killed or mortally wounded on that day. To understand what happened to Howes and the other on June 18, 1864, I also need to investigate the military situation that put the First Maine into the situation where they were ordered to charge at Petersburg. This is the elements of military history come in. Issues like the development of field fortifications, military training, military tactics and the leadership competency of officers in the First Maine are all things I need to understand in order to be able to interpret the experience of this regiment.

For me getting to better understand the experiences of these individual soldiers, means trying to understand what perspectives they brought with them and how they were impacted by the war. For Peleg Bradford his war experience and wounding left him bitter.

“I want to get home as soon as I can for I want to dam a few of them Republicans and have them go to war and lose a leg and the see if they wouldn’t want the war to stop”

Peleg Bradford lived to become Selectmen for the town of Carmel and died in 1918. In addition his younger brother Owen, also with the First Maine Heavy Artillery was killed in October of 1864. If his views on race or his dislike of Republicans were ever tempered or changed is unknown.

The debate over a social or military history approach to understanding the Civil War will not end anytime soon perhaps never, but to me I think we need both if we are every going to fully understand this period.


dw said…

That was a great post. I think you're right -- there is no clean separation between social and military history in the stories of America's citizen-soldiers.

Dave W.
Andy said…
Dave, thanks for reading and the comment. For me the story of the citizen solider is the most fascinating, but to understand it I need to have a sense of the society and culture they were fighting for.


Popular Posts