Pressures from the Home Front

J.L. Wall

J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he teaches writing to college students and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

Related Post Roulette

24 Responses

  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.”Report

    • Robert Cheeks in reply to Elias Isquith says:

      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.Report

      • J.L. Wall in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

        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.Report

      • J.L. Wall in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

        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.Report

        • Steven Donegal in reply to J.L. Wall says:

          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.Report

          • Yeah, this came to my mind, too.

            We might be best served going with the whole War is Hell thing and leaving it at that…Report

          • Robert Cheeks in reply to Steven Donegal says:

            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.’Report

            • Chris in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

              Bob, given that what happened in Georgia, and elsewhere (Mississippi comes to mind) at the hands of Union soldiers was not a new way of war, but a return to the old way of waging war, it seems odd to blame it on progressivism.


          • J.L. Wall in reply to Steven Donegal says:

            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.Report

            • Has any war fought along such stark and irreconcilable ideological lines ever gone differently? Not that that proves much or serves as an excuse; but when I think of how WWII was resolved, it brings me pause.Report

              • J.L. Wall in reply to Elias Isquith says:

                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.Report

              • 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.)Report

              • 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.Report

    • J.L. Wall in reply to Elias Isquith says:

      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.)Report

      • 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.Report

  2. Burt Likko says:

    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.Report

  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.Report

  4. tom van dyke says:

    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:

    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.”Report

  5. Anderson says:

    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.Report