“The Harder Courage”

“I am aposed to one man killing another [but]…I shall fight.”


Tolstoy once wrote that what fascinated him about war was “its reality”—not the strategies of generals or the maneuvers of troops but “the actual killing.” He was “more interested,” he explained, “to know in what way and under the influence of what feelings one soldier kills another than to know how the armies were arranged at Austerlitz and Borodino.”1 Killing is battle’s fundamental instrument and purpose. And in the Civil War it was killing, not dying, as Orestes Brownson observed in 1862, that demanded “the harder courage,” for it required the more significant departure from soldiers’ understandings of themselves as human beings and, in mid-nineteenth-century America, as Christians.

Most Civil War combatants were very like one another—metaphorically, if not literally, brothers, in the oft-repeated trope of the war. When racial difference eroded this common identity, killing became easier, as in the many reported instances of atrocities against black soldiers, such as the infamous 1864 massacre at Fort Pillow. But in most circumstances and for most individuals during the war, killing posed a problem to be overcome. In this respect Civil War soldiers were hardly different from their fellow combatants in other wars. Studies of warriors in ancient times, in Napoleonic armies, in World Wars I and II, and in the Falklands confirm the judgment of Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, U.S. Army Retired, specialist in military psychology and former West Point faculty member, that “man is not by nature a killer.” Indeed, he often resists even firing his weapon.2

But just as human beings die differently in different times and places, they come to kill differently too. Human reluctance to murder expresses itself within a particular historical and cultural moment. Civil War killing, like death more generally, required work—intellectual and psychological effort to address religious and emotional constraints, as well as adaptation to the ways this particular war’s technologies, tactics, and logistics shaped the experience of combat.

The first challenge for Civil War soldiers to surmount was the Sixth Commandment. Dying exemplified Christian devotion, as Jesus had demonstrated on the cross, but killing violated fundamental biblical law. As one Texas recruit explained his fears, fighting in battle seemed “the most…blasphemous thing perhaps on earth.” Sermons and religious publications North and South invoked and explored the traditional “just war” doctrine, emphasizing that killing was not merely tolerated but required in God’s service. There is “nothing in the demands of a just and defensive warfare at variance with the spirit and duties of Christianity,” an oft-reprinted tract for soldiers emphasized. Citing a variety of Old Testament texts, the Confederate Baptist insisted that men were exempt from the commandment not to kill “when lawful war calls for the slaying of our country’s foes.” While southerners most often appealed to self-defense against invasion as the source of the war’s justness, they invoked as well the notion of divine sanction for a holy war in which they served as Confederate crusaders. Northerners just as avidly claimed God for their side as they fought to save a nation that represented “the last best hope of earth.” “I am aposed to one man killing another,” a Union soldier wrote to “Friends at Home,” but, he continued, “when we are atacked and our lives are in danger by a gang of men aposed to the best government on earth I shall fight.” As emancipation emerged as an explicit war aim after 1862, northerners increasingly cited the sin of slavery as a religious justification for the use of violence. In 1864 the Christian Recorder, published by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, editorialized on “The War and Its Design,” inquiring when war and killing are acceptable and concluding that the goal of overturning the wrong of slavery made the conflict a righteous one and its carnage justifiable.3

Such arguments offered permission to kill, or at least softened deeply held prohibitions against it. But soldiers and even commanders still struggled with taking other men’s lives. Union general in chief Winfield Scott observed before First Bull Run how thin a line separated war from murder. “No Christian nation,” he insisted, “can be justified in waging war in such a way as shall destroy five hundred and one lives, when the object of the war can be attained at a cost of five hundred. Every man killed beyond the number absolutely required is murdered.” From his perspective in 1861, Scott would have regarded the ultimate slaughter of hundreds of thousands and the profligate squandering of lives that was to come at places like Malvern Hill, Marye’s Heights, Cold Harbor, and Gettysburg as unforgivable. Scott’s successor as Union commander, George B. McClellan, shared this aversion to killing. “When he had to lose lives he was almost undone,” observed historian T. Harry Williams. General George Gordon Meade believed that in order to ensure minimal losses on both sides, the North should prosecute the war “like the afflicted parent who is compelled to chastise his erring child, and who performs the duty with a sad heart.” It was in this context that Meade’s bloody victory at Gettysburg would seem appalling, and that Grant’s casualties in the spring campaigns of 1864 would be attacked as “butchery.”4

As they took up arms and, in the phrase they commonly used to describe initiation into battle, went “to see the elephant,” individual soldiers worried about their direct personal responsibility for killing. A Massachusetts man wrote of his first experience under fire in Baltimore in April 1861, when a mob of irate southern sympathizers attacked Union troops heading through the city to Washington. Edwin Spofford pulled the trigger almost without thinking after a soldier standing next to him was killed. “The man who shot him fell dead by my rifle,” he wrote. “I felt bad at first when I saw what I had done, but it soon passed off, and as I had done my duty and was not the aggressor, I was soon able to fire again and again.” Duty and self-defense released him from an initial sense of guilt and helped him to do the work of a soldier. Implicit yet present here too was the motive of revenge. Spofford came to kill almost as a reflex, as a response to what he saw as the murder of the comrade beside him.5


“The Sixth Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteers Firing into the People, Baltimore, April, 1861.” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, April 30, 1861.

As the intensity of this war and the size of its death tolls mounted in the months and years that followed, vengeance came to play an ever more important role, joining principles of duty and self-defense in legitimating violence. The desire for retribution could be almost elemental in its passion, overcoming reason and releasing the restraints of fear and moral inhibition for soldiers who had witnessed the slaughter of their comrades. Hugh McLees of South Carolina wrote of the struggle not to abandon his principles in his treatment of a group of Union prisoners. “I saw some nasty blue Yankees in the cars at Atlanta,” he wrote in 1864,

and as I looked at our poor Boys there with their grisly wounds and some of them cold in death I could much more easily have taken a dagger and said to them see there what a carnival of blood you have made and as you love it take still more that of your own hearts take that with what you have already drunk I could more easily have done that than I could act toward them in the part that I know a truly brave magnanimous man must ever act toward a foe in his power and unarmed. May God give me grace to live a Christian.

As it reiterated “take…that…take that,” McLees’s letter home enacted in language the violence he had abjured; the pen freed him to express a brutality he had resisted with dagger or sword. Yankee Oliver Norton proved less controlled after his messmates fell victim to Confederate fire, for he abandoned all thoughts of magnanimity or Christianity. The feeling “uppermost in my mind,” he explained, “was a desire to kill as many rebels as I could.”6

Once the constraints of conscience and custom loosened, some soldiers, especially in the heat of combat, could seem almost possessed by the urge to kill. A soldier in action became “quite another being,” one of “almost maniac wildness,” with eyes darting, nostrils flared, and mouth gasping, a correspondent for a southern newspaper observed. A New York Tribune reporter at Shiloh described this frightening transformation. “Men lost their semblance of humanity,” he wrote, “and the spirit of the demon shone in their faces. There was but one desire, and that was to destroy.” It was difficult for him to think of these men as Christian soldiers, or even as beings who were fully human.7

Soldiers, too, found themselves surprised by the power of some comrades’ exhilaration. Byrd Willis of the Army of Northern Virginia wrote in his journal about seeing a member of his unit “jumping about as if in great agony” during an 1864 skirmish. “I immediately ran up to him to ascertain when he was hurt & if I could do any thing of him—but upon reaching him I found that he was not hurt but was executing a species of Indian War Dance around a Poor Yankee (who lay on his back in the last agonies of death) exclaiming I killed him! I killed him! Evidently carried away with excitement & delight, I left James to continue his dance.” Numbers of Civil War letters and diaries describe similar instances of soldiers playing at being Indians—imitating war whoops, painting their faces with mud or soot from cartridges in what they saw as Indian style—when going into battle. By replacing their own identities with those of men they regarded as savages, they redefined their relationship both to violence and to their prewar selves.8

The emerging delight in killing was not restricted to the heat of battle. Confederate artillery officer Osmun Latrobe described his pleasure contemplating a job well done after Antietam: “I rode over the battlefield, and enjoed the sight of hundred[s] of dead Yankees. Saw much of the work I had done in the way of several limbs, decapitated bodies, and mutilated remains of all kinds. Doing my soul good. Would that the whole Union army were as such, and I had had my hand in it.” For Latrobe, this “work” represented a successful execution of his duties as a soldier. Vengeance was simply a form of justice, the mutilated bodies equivalent to the biblical eye and tooth of retribution. Half a year later Latrobe would be celebrating “glorious heaps of Yankee dead” after Chancellorsville. Sergeant William Henry Redman was in pursuit of Confederates retreating after Gettysburg when he wrote his mother of his near obsession with destroying the rebels who had dared invade the North. “I am only satisfied nowadays when I am fighting the enemy. The proper time to fight him is while he is on our northern soil. I shall kill every one of them that I can.”9

Although Union and Confederate soldiers often struggled, at least initially, with killing, men throughout history have reported loving combat, and the Civil War was no exception. Union officer John W. De Forest explained that “to fire at a person who is firing at you is somehow wonderfully consolatory and sustaining; more than that, it is exciting and produces in you the so-called joy of battle.” Although De Forest described the comfort of shooting in self-defense, he also revealed how he escaped an oppressive sense of victimhood through action against his enemy; he was at once justified and empowered by battle’s intensity. Frank Coker of Georgia tried to explain to his wife how despite battle’s horrors, “there is an excitement, a charm, an inspiration in it that makes one wish to be where it is going on.” For some men from rural areas, battle took on the character of the hunt, with its sense of sport and pleasure. A Texas officer exulted as the enemy fell before him, “Oh this is fun to lie here and shoot them down.” To a Union soldier near Harrison’s Landing, Virginia, in 1862, battle “seemed like play for we would be laughing and talking to each other yelling and firing away. One fellow would say ‘Watch me pop that fellow.’ Another fellow said, ‘I dropped a six foot secesh.’”10

Far from finding reluctance about killing among his comrades, H. C. Matrau of the Union’s Iron Brigade explained to his parents how military training seemed only to enhance an innate brutality. A month of drilling in bayonet attacks led him to conclude, “It is strange what a predilection we have for injuring our brother man, but we learn the art of killing far easier than we do a hard problem in arithmetic.” Surprised at this discovery, Matrau began to revise his understanding of human nature and its capacities. Many soldiers found that society’s powerful inhibitions against murder were all too easily overcome.11

Yet the particular social and technological circumstances of the Civil War posed significant challenges to the art of killing as it had been practiced in earlier conflicts. Armies of the mid-nineteenth century were accustomed to fighting in ordered ranks to control soldiers and compel their firing and killing. The mechanism of drill and the almost automatic movements imposed by military discipline worked together with the organization of troops in close ranks to lessen soldiers’ self-doubt and inhibitions about killing—as well as any desire or chance they might have to flee. Men acted as part of a whole, which both removed an element of agency from the individual and encompassed him within the pressures and solidarity of the group. As a Confederate soldier waiting to enter combat cried to a rabbit he saw loping across the battlefield amid heavy fire, “‘Run, cotton-tail…If I hadn’t got a reputation to sustain, I’d travel too!’”12

But the Civil War departed in significant ways from what had come before. It was fought with new weapons, significantly more technologically advanced even than those generally available in the Mexican War a decade and a half earlier. Instead of the smoothbore musket, which could accurately reach targets up to about one hundred yards away, almost all Civil War infantry North and South were, by the middle of the war, equipped with rifles with an effective range of a three hundred yards. By the end of the war the introduction of breechloaders, chiefly among some units of the Union army, further enhanced lethality by permitting soldiers to reload rapidly, rather than at the pace of two to three shots a minute common with muzzle-loading rifles. Civil War armies marked a significant departure from previous conflicts as well, for this war generated a mass mobilization of common citizens and forces of unprecedented size. The approximately three million Americans North and South who ultimately served in the course of the conflict were not trained professionals, schooled in drill and maneuver, but overwhelmingly volunteers with little military knowledge or experience.13

Combined with the enhanced firepower and range of Civil War weapons, the minimal training of volunteer forces and the sheer size of the armies brought increased disorder to battle and less direct control by officers over troops. In addition, most Civil War battlefields were not open terrain but were covered with woods and scrub that undermined the orderly command of long battle lines. Although costly frontal assaults remained common till nearly the end of the war, by the latter stages of the conflict troops began to be employed in looser order and even in trench warfare, as the construction of earthworks and field fortifications became routine. As a result, soldiers became far less likely to fight in close-order battle formation where they fired on command; they had more independence in deciding when and whether to discharge their weapons.

Dave Grossman suggests that this independence may have prompted many Civil War soldiers to express their aversion to killing by failing to discharge their weapons. He cites as evidence the discovery of 24,000 loaded rifles on the field after Gettysburg; half these weapons held more than one load. Given how long it took to load and fire a rifle—using powder, ball, ramrod, percussion cap—he calculates that 95 percent of these soldiers should have been shot with an empty weapon if they had indeed been actively engaged in trying to kill the enemy. Grossman believes that “most of these discarded weapons on the battlefield at Gettysburg represent soldiers who had been unable or unwilling to fire their weapons in the midst of combat and then had been killed, wounded, or routed.”14

There is little surviving evidence with which to assess the accuracy of Grossman’s assertion about high rates of nonfiring by Civil War soldiers; his claim is based chiefly on extrapolations from studies of other wars, studies that are themselves contested. The intriguing puzzle of multiply loaded guns may have other explanations: for example, a soldier’s pure panic, or his failure amid the din of battle to realize a weapon had not discharged. But some anecdotal evidence of resistance to firing does exist. One Confederate soldier at Chickamauga made a dramatic show of his refusal to kill. Instead of aiming at the enemy, he shot straight up into the air while “praying as lustily as ever one of Cromwell’s Roundhead’s prayed.” When his captain threatened to shoot him, a comrade reported his reply: “You can kill me if you want to, but I am not going to appear before my God with the blood of my fellow man on my soul.” Willing to remain “exposed to every volley of the enemy’s fire,” the soldier was ready to give his life rather than take that of another.15

Subsequent wars introduced forms of combat with levels of impersonality and anonymity that reduced the burden of individual responsibility endured by Civil War infantry. Many of the bombs and missiles used in twentieth-century warfare, for example, almost entirely separated the killer from his victims. The crew of the Enola Gay or the specialists targeting precision weapons in the First Gulf War had a very different relationship to killing than the Civil War soldier—or the twenty-first-century enlisted man on the ground in Afghanistan or Iraq. Physical distance between enemies facilitates emotional distance from destructive acts. But fewer than 10 percent of Civil War troops were artillerymen, who lobbed shot, shell, or canister toward a distant enemy, and even these targets were usually close enough to be clearly identifiable as men. Most Civil War wounds were inflicted by minié balls shot from rifles: 94 percent of Union injuries were caused by bullets; 5.5 percent by artillery; and less than 0.4 percent by saber or bayonet. Although Civil War weapons did have significantly increased range, infantry engagements, even as they grew to involve tens of thousands of men, remained essentially intimate; soldiers were often able to see each other’s faces and to know whom they had killed. Historian Earl Hess asserts that despite the capabilities of the new rifles, most combat occurred at a distance of about one hundred yards, even though, as one Yankee soldier explained, “when men can kill one another at six hundred yards they generally would prefer to do it at that distance.” S. H. M. Byers of Iowa remembered one terrible battle where “lines of blue and gray” stood “close together and fire[d] into each other’s faces for an hour and a half,” and after Gettysburg, Union soldier Henry Abbott wrote his father of opposing “rows of dead…within 15 and 20 feet apart, as near hand to hand fighting as I ever care to see.”16

The growth in size of battlefields between the Civil War and the two World Wars of the next century influenced the kinds of interactions that took place upon them. In Civil War engagements, The Penguin Encyclopedia of Modern Warfare calculates, the ratio of soldiers to space on the field averaged one man per 260 square meters; by the end of World War II, the ratio rose to one per 28,000 square meters. With its large volunteer armies, its longer-range weapons, and its looser military formations, the Civil War thus placed more inexperienced soldiers, with more firepower and with more individual responsibility for the decision to kill, into more intimate, face-to-face battle settings than perhaps any other war in history. Absent the reassurance provided by distance or controlling discipline or combat experience, many Civil War soldiers were likely to have struggled as they decided when and even whether to fire at men who were visibly very like themselves.17

For many soldiers, the horror of killing was exemplified by sharpshooters, whose work appeared simply to be “cold blooded murder.” Sniping was a fundamental reality of Civil War military life, and rifles made marksmen accurate up to a distance of almost half a mile. Other technological innovations, the telescopic sight and the breech-loading rifle, further enhanced the sharpshooter’s lethality. Confederate sharpshooters’ units required men to be able to hit a target at six hundred yards with open sights. A Vermont recruiting poster for “The Sharp Shooters of Windham County” announced, “No person will be enlisted who cannot when firing at the distance of 200 yards, at a rest, put ten consecutive shots in a target, the average distance not to exceed five inches from the centre of the bull’s eye to the centre of the ball.”18

Soldiers often described bullets whizzing by even as they sat composing their letters home. “Dear Brother, Wife and All,” Isaac Hadden wrote to his family in New York from Virginia in June 1864, “There was a man this moment shot in the belly 20 feet from me which is nothing unusual in this country. It is worth a man’s life to go to sh-t here.” To shoot a man as he defecated, or slept, or sat cooking or eating, or even as he was “sitting under a tree reading Dickens,” could not easily be rationalized as an act of self-defense. Soldiers in camp wanted to think themselves off duty as targets as well as killers, and they found the intentionality and personalism involved in picking out and picking off a single man highly disturbing. Union sharpshooting units customarily wore green uniforms to serve as camouflage, and Confederates came to refer to these marksmen as “snakes in the grass.”19

The cool calculation, the purposefulness, and the asymmetry of risk involved in sharpshooting rendered it even more threatening to basic principles of humanity than the frenzied excesses of heated battle. When twelve soldiers from a regiment of Union sharpshooters were taken prisoner in Virginia in 1864, a local Petersburg newspaper argued for their execution: “in our estimation they are nothing but murderers creeping up & shooting men in cold blood & should receive the fate of murderers.” After enduring twenty-four days of steady and debilitating sniper fire between Union and Confederate troops near Port Hudson, Louisiana, John De Forest confessed, “I could never bring myself to what seemed like taking human life in pure gayety.” Men who had displayed great courage in battle had broken down “under the monotonous worry” generated by sniper fire. De Forest judged it a “sickening, murderous, unnatural, uncivilized way of being.” Men who could kill others in this way were not men as De Forest had before the war understood them to be; they violated his assumptions about both human nature and human civilization; he believed they undermined what defined their human selves.20


“The Army of the Potomac—A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty.” Engraving from an oil painting by Winslow Homer. Harper’s Weekly, November 15, 1862.

Dehumanizing the enemy is a common means of breaking down restraints against killing. Military training and propaganda often explicitly encourage such behavior, and soldiers themselves are inventive at differentiating and demeaning those whom they are assigned to destroy—be they Krauts or Nips or Slopes, to cite three twentieth-century examples. In the mid-nineteenth century, racism served to place African American soldiers in particular peril. Even in the Union army the 180,000 black soldiers who enlisted beginning in 1862 faced degrading inequalities in pay and opportunity. Constituting nearly 10 percent of federal forces, they served under white officers and were overwhelmingly assigned to labor details and fatigue duty rather than entrusted with the responsibilities of combat.

For Confederates, black troops represented an intolerable provocation. To permit blacks to serve as soldiers, Howell Cobb of Georgia declared, suggested “our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” These inferior beings, he believed, were incapable of the courage required for battle. But for white southerners, the issue was not primarily one of racial theories. The terrifying actuality of a force of armed black men seemed equivalent to a slave uprising launched by the federal government against the South. White southerners feared and detested African American troops. Mary Lee, who had endured three years on the front lines in embattled Winchester, Virginia, felt “more unnerved” by the appearance of black Union soldiers in 1864 “than by any sight I have seen since the war [began].”21

Confederate soldiers regarded black troops as “so many devils,” whose very presence in the South justified their deaths. As the Arkansas Gazette proclaimed, “Arming negroes, as soldiers or otherwise, or doing any thing to incite them to insurrection is a worse crime than the murder of any one individual: Therefore, all officers and soldiers…guilty of such practices…should be punished as murderers.” Southern soldiers did victimize black Yankees, with atrocities that ranged from slaughter of prisoners to mutilation of the dead. W. D. Rutherford of South Carolina boldly declared his intentions in a letter he sent to his wife before an 1864 engagement with a regiment of U.S. Colored Troops: “The determination in our army is to kill them all and spare not.” The Fort Pillow massacre of April 1864, when Nathan Bedford Forrest’s men killed nearly two-thirds of the approximately three hundred black soldiers present, most after they had surrendered, was only the most notorious of such incidents. Others were perhaps even more grisly. At a battle at Poison Springs, Arkansas, which occurred in the same month as Fort Pillow, the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry lost 117 dead and only about half as many wounded. This was a suspicious ratio in itself, as numbers of wounded almost always far exceed numbers of slain. A Confederate officer described bodies “scalped …nearly all stripped…No black prisoners were taken.” A Union soldier confirmed “that the inhuman and blood thirsty enemy…was engaged in killing the wounded wherever found.” But a local newspaper defended the Confederate actions as entirely consistent with the larger purposes of the war, “We cannot treat negroes…as prisoners of war without a destruction of the social system for which we contend…We must claim the full control of all negroes who may fall into our hands, to punish with death, or any other penalty.” Slavery required subordination and control, and arming men elevated and empowered them.22

It was not just African American soldiers who were at risk of southern retribution. A Texas officer described with some amazement his unit’s engagement with a black regiment near Monroe, Louisiana: “I never saw so many dead negroes in my life. We took no prisoners, except the white officers, fourteen in number; these were lined up and shot after the negroes were finished. Next day they were thrown into a wagon, hauled to the Ouchita river and thrown in. Some were hardly dead—that made no difference—in they went.”23

Even black teamsters or servants working for the federals were at risk, and male slaves suspected of fleeing to join the Union army were more than fair game for Confederate rage. A Confederate major described an incident in which black civilians accompanying Union troops were slaughtered. “The battle-field was sickening…no orders, threats or commands could restrain the men from vengeance on the negroes, and they were piled in great heaps about the wagons, in the tangled brushwood, and upon the muddy and trampled road.” All too often, however, orders and commanders encouraged rather than restrained such atrocities. Private Harry Bird reported that Confederates after the Battle of the Crater in 1864 quieted wounded black soldiers begging for water “by a bayonet thrust.” Bird welcomed the subsequent order “to kill them all” it was a command “well and willingly…obeyed.” General Robert E. Lee, only a few hundred yards away, did nothing to intervene.24


“The War in Tennessee—Rebel Massacre of the Union Troops After the Surrender at Fort Pillow, April 12.” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, May 7, 1864.

Jefferson Davis himself had approved the execution of four captured black soldiers in the fall of 1862, and Secretary of War James Seddon declared in April 1863 that “the Department has determined that negroes captured will not be regarded as prisoners of war.” General Kirby Smith, commander of the Trans Mississippi Department, even admonished an officer who had shown himself too merciful to black combatants. “I have been unofficially informed,” he wrote, “that some of your troops have captured negroes in arms. I hope this may not be so, and that your subordinates who may have been in command of capturing parties may have recognized the propriety of giving no quarter to armed negroes and their officers.”25

In the case of black soldiers and the officers who surrendered the privileges of whiteness by consenting to lead them, “propriety” seemed all too often to dictate murder. Killing was not simply justified but almost required, even when such action demanded suspension of fundamental rules of war and humanity. In practice, it would prove impossible for Confederates to maintain a policy of killing all black prisoners, at least in part because of threatened Union reprisals. Some African Americans were treated as prisoners of war, as were, for example, the approximately one hundred men incarcerated at Andersonville. But violence against black soldiers and their white officers was extensive and widely discussed among northern soldiers and civilians alike.26

Well before white atrocities stoked an intensified desire for vengeance, black soldiers approached war’s violence differently from white Americans. Their understanding of why the war was righteous and why their fighting was justified grew out of their knowledge of centuries of suffering under slavery, as well as from their own personal experiences of cruelty and oppression. As T. Strother explained in a letter to the Christian Recorder, the newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church,

To suppose that slavery, the accursed thing, could be abolished peacefully and laid aside innocently, after having plundered cradles, separated husbands and wives, parents and children; and after having starved to death, worked to death, whipped to death, run to death, burned to death, lied to death, kicked and cuffed to death, and grieved to death; and, worst of all, after having made prostitutes of a majority of the best women of a whole nation of people…would be the greatest ignorance under the sun.

Slavery manufactured death, Strother charged; it was itself a kind of warfare perpetrated against blacks; to take arms against it was by definition an act of self-defense, an assertion of manhood and a claim for personal liberation. “Those who would be free must strike the blow,” a young soldier explained in 1863. Blacks fought to define and claim their humanity, which seemed to many inseparable from avenging the wrongs of a slave system that had rendered them property rather than men.27

It would come to seem ironic to many observers, both during the war and later, that manhood should be defined and achieved by killing. Writing the history of the black experience in war and Reconstruction in 1935, W. E. B. DuBois found it “extraordinary…that in the minds of most people…only murder makes men. The slave…was humble; he protected the women of the South, and the world ignored him. The slave killed white men; and behold, he was a man!” In fact, like other Civil War soldiers, African Americans wrote often of dying and of Christian sacrifice as fundamental purposes of their military service. “Wounded Colored Soldiers in Hospital” after the 1863 assault on Fort Wagner cast themselves as “soldiers for Jesus” and assured the readers of the northern black press that “if all our people get their freedom, we can afford to die.” Black soldiers did die in dramatic numbers; one-fifth of the approximately 180,000 who served did not survive the war, although disease proved a far more deadly killer than combat. (Overall, twice as many soldiers died of disease as from battle wounds; ten times as many black soldiers did.) But these deaths promised political as well as spiritual redemption. Black soldiers sought to win a place in the polity, as citizens and as men, through their willingness to give up their lives. “When you hear of a white family that has lost father, husband or brother,” wrote a corporal from the Third U.S. Colored Troops reporting the loss of ten comrades in South Carolina, “you can say of the colored man, we too have borne our share of the burden.” Black and white northerners could honor heroic black deaths, even if, as historian Alice Fahs points out, the racist assumptions of many whites made them “only too willing to celebrate the manhood of black soldiers who no longer had any manhood to exercise.”28


“Unidentified Sergeant, U.S. Colored Troops.” Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University.

Perhaps the most dramatic such celebration, one that became for many African Americans emblematic of the meaning of black service and sacrifice, was the New Orleans funeral of Captain André Cailloux in August 1863. The Christian Recorder judged the event “one of the most extraordinary exhibitions brought forth by this rebellion.” And exhibition it was: of black courage, accomplishment, and solidarity, as well as the strength of a black claim to citizenship in a restored American nation.

Cailloux was one of approximately 11,000 free people of color in antebellum New Orleans. A literate artisan and a property owner, he served as secretary of one of the city’s many Afro-Creole mutual benefit societies. After the fall of New Orleans to federal forces in the spring of 1862, Cailloux helped recruit a company for the Union army. Founded upon a long tradition of military service by New Orleans’s free people of color, including a critical role in aiding Andrew Jackson against the British in 1815, the Louisiana Native Guards claimed distinctions denied other units of nonwhite soldiers, such as the right to serve under company officers from their own community. Killed as he led his men in a charge at Port Hudson on May 27, 1863, Cailloux was the first of only a few black officers to die in the war. For all his courage and respectability, André Cailloux was in the eyes of the Confederates simply a man who deserved not just death but dishonor for his presumption in taking up arms against a superior race. Despite a truce called to permit the removal of the dead and wounded, rebel sharpshooters prevented Union troops from retrieving the bodies of black soldiers. Cailloux lay on the field until July 8, when Port Hudson surrendered. After forty-one days exposed to the elements, his body could be identified only because of a ring he still wore.29

Cailloux’s funeral in New Orleans later in the month was intended to compensate for this humiliation. One wonders too if it was in some sense understood—at least by the northern press—as a counterpoint to the elaborate ceremonies that had surrounded the burial of Confederate hero Stonewall Jackson, who had died just days before Cailloux was killed. In New Orleans “immense crowds of colored people” made the streets “almost impassable,” the newspapers reported. Benevolent societies lined Esplanade Street for more than a mile. A parade of fellow soldiers and civic society members accompanied the coffin, draped in an American flag and borne by a hearse pulled by a team of fine horses, to St. Louis Cemetery. A Catholic priest, who had been censured and suspended by the Louisiana archbishop because of his antislavery sympathies, performed the service and “called upon all to offer themselves, like Cailloux had done, martyrs to the cause of justice, freedom and good government. It was a death the proudest might envy.” TheUnion, newspaper of the free black community, concluded that Captain Cailloux’s death had “vindicated his race from the opprobrium with which it was charged.” Certainly, his death became a symbol for the northern antislavery cause and particularly for black abolitionists. The flag Cailloux had carried at Port Hudson was prominently displayed at the National Negro Convention presided over by Frederick Douglass in October 1864. Cailloux’s death—configured as heroic sacrifice—made a powerful case for blacks’ right to citizenship in the nation they had given so much to save.30


“Funeral of the Late Captain Cailloux.” Harper’s Weekly, August 29, 1863.

But in the eyes of many African Americans, the focus on death and Christian sacrifice only seemed to combine with widespread military atrocities to perpetuate a disturbing tradition of black victimhood. From the front in Virginia, reporter George Stephens hastened to assure his readers at the New York Weekly Anglo-African that “we do not wish to make…[them] think that we are anxious to meet death on the battlefield…or to use the language of a contemporary, ‘go out gaily to meet death as to our bride.’” The suffering of bondage sufficed; now justice required that others be the objects of violence. Part of establishing equality would be evening this score. Vengeance and retribution played a prominent place in blacks’ understanding of the rationale for war’s destructiveness, as well as for the violent acts of individual men.31

A popular poem that appeared in several versions in the black press illustrated this conception of achieving equity through equivalent suffering. A “brave Confederate chief” is killed in battle and is carried home to his mother, who greets the death of her only son with “frantic sorrow.” Her “aged slave” comes to offer not consolation but justice. “Missus,” she declares, “we is even, now.” The white mother had sold all ten of her slave’s children, so now neither woman has any remaining offspring; the two mothers are alone together in their common loss. The mistress must now, in the words of her slave, “to the just Avenger bow.” The war is God’s instrument for balancing the accounts of righteousness:

Yea! although it tarry long,

Payment shall be made for wrong!32

This notion of fitting retribution also lay at the heart of Frederick Douglass’s view of the war and of black soldiers’ role within it. The most prominent voice of the northern black community, Douglass understood the centrality of violence to slavery from his own experience in bondage. He had been beaten, he had fought back, and he had fled; he retained few illusions about the likelihood of white southerners giving up their peculiar institution without a desperate struggle. Douglass believed he had reclaimed his own “manly independence” by fighting and overcoming the brutal white overseer Covey. In Douglass’s view, slaves had the absolute right to rise up and kill their masters, and his sympathy for John Brown had arisen from this premise. Douglass embraced a redemptive as well as an instrumental view of bloodshed; violence was not simply effective but instructive and liberating. The war’s brutality, he wrote, served as a “blazing illustration” of the fundamental truth that “there is no more exemption for nations than for individuals from the just retribution due to flagrant and persistent transgression.” But the Civil War’s “tears and blood,” he believed, “may at last bring us to our senses.”33

Black soldiers entered battle not just deeply invested in the war’s outcome but strongly motivated to kill in service of their cause. Already victims of generations of cruelty in slavery, they saw themselves to be simply balancing accounts as they struggled for the freedom that would equalize their condition. They were fighting, they repeated again and again, for “God, race and country”—for righteousness, equality, and citizenship. But as the war continued and black troops experienced rising numbers of atrocities at the hands of Confederate troops who singled them out for special cruelty and humiliation, many African American soldiers felt even more entitled to vengeance and even more eager to kill. They knew, too, that they would be given no quarter if captured by southerners, who were likely either to shoot them or to send them into slavery—regardless of whether they had been slaves or had even lived below the Mason-Dixon line before the war.34

Cordelia Harvey, sent south by the governor of Wisconsin to provide aid to the state’s wounded, wrote from Mississippi late in April 1864 to describe the anger and determination of black soldiers. “Since the Fort Pillow tragedy,” she explained, “our colored troops & their officers are awaiting in breathless anxiety the action of Government…Our officers of negro regiments declare they will take no more prisoners—& there is death to the rebel in every black mans eyes. They are still but terrible. They will fight…The negroes know what they are doing.” A black regiment, she reported, had already hanged a Chicago cotton merchant who had dared to say that he believed the rebels “did right” in killing the blacks on a nearby plantation during a recent raid.35

News of Fort Pillow prompted cries for vengeance from northern blacks. Soldiers should not cease fighting “until they shall have made a rebel to bite the dust for every hair of those…of our brethren massacred at Fort Pillow…give no quarter; take no prisoners…then, they will respect your manhood,” wrote one correspondent to the Christian Recorder. But Henry M. Turner, the black chaplain of the First U.S. Colored Infantry, worried about the position “highly endorsed by an immense number of both white and colored people, which I am sternly opposed to, and that is, the killing of all the rebel prisoners taken by our soldiers.” Even if the rebels had “set the example,” such actions represented an “outrage upon civilization and…Christianity.” Turner urged black soldiers to disappoint those who expected them to behave brutally; they should instead claim a moral superiority to their enemies. Vengeance, as another black chaplain emphasized, belonged to the Lord.36

In March 1865 the ringing cadences of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural would echo the widespread black understanding of the war’s carnage as divine punishment for the sin of slavery. Advocating “malice toward none,” urging that Americans “judge not that we be not judged,” Lincoln nevertheless suggested the possibility that in the Civil War God himself had judged—not in designating a victor but in exacting the lives of so many Americans. The deaths brought about by the Civil War were less a Christian sacrifice than an atonement. “If God wills that it continue,” Lincoln proclaimed just a little more than a month before the end of the war, “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”37

Lincoln’s eloquence was perhaps matched by the passion of an elderly woman slave who saw in the work of death and killing the conflict’s fundamental purpose. Mary Livermore, Union nurse, described a wartime encounter with an African American woman she had known years before during Livermore’s service as a governess on a southern plantation. Aunt Aggy had waited through decades of cruelty to see “white folks’ blood…a-runnin’ on the ground like a riber.” But she had always had faith “it was a-comin. I allers ’spected to see white folks heaped up dead. An’ de Lor’, He’s keept His promise, an’ ’venged His people, jes’ as I knowed He would. I seed ’em dead on de field, Massa Linkum’s sojers an’ de Virginny sojers, all heaped togedder…Oh, de Lor’ He do jes’ right, if you only gib Him time enough to turn Hisself.”38

Slavery gave the war’s killing and dying a special meaning for black Americans; the conflict was a moment for both divine and human retribution, as well as an opportunity to become the agent rather than the victim of violence. Killing was for black soldiers—as well as for black civilians like Aunt Aggy—the instrument of liberation; it was an act of personal empowerment and the vehicle of racial emancipation. To kill and to be, as soldiers, permitted to kill was ironically to claim a human right.

In the aftermath of battle, when the intensity and the frenzy dissipated, when the killing at least temporarily ceased, when reason returned, soldiers confronted the devastation they had created and survived—“the unmistakable evidence,” as one soldier put it after Spotsylvania, “that death is doing its most frightful work.” William Dean Howells later wrote of the lasting impact of the Civil War on James Garfield, a Union general and later U.S. president: “at the sight of these dead men whom other men had killed, something went out of him, the habit of a lifetime, that never came back again: the sense of the sacredness of life and the impossibility of destroying it.” Dead men whom other men had killed: there was the crux of the matter. Battle was, as a North Carolina soldier ruefully put it, “majestic murder.” The carnage was not a natural disaster but a man-made one, the product of human choice and human agency. Neither North nor South had expected the death tolls that Civil War battles produced, and the steadily escalating level of destruction continued to amaze and horrify. The Mexican War had claimed approximately 13,000 U.S. lives, of which fewer than 2,000 had been battle deaths; the First Battle of Bull Run in August 1861 had shocked the nation with its totals of 900 killed and 2,700 wounded. By the following spring at Shiloh, Americans recognized that they had embarked on a new kind of war, as the battle yielded close to 24,000 casualties, including approximately 1,700 dead on each side. Shiloh’s number of killed and wounded exceeded the combined totals of all the major engagements of the war that had preceded it. The summer’s fighting on the Virginia Peninsula would escalate the carnage yet again. “We used to think that the battle of Manassas was a great affair,” Confederate Charles Kerrison wrote home to South Carolina in July 1862, “but it was mere child’s play compared with those in which we have lately been engaged.” By the time of Gettysburg a year later, the Union army alone reported 23,000 casualties, including 3,000 killed; Confederate losses are estimated between 24,000 and 28,000; in some regiments, numbers of killed and wounded approached 90 percent. And by the spring of 1864 Grant’s losses in slightly more than a month approached 50,000.39

Faced with the Civil War’s unprecedented slaughter, soldiers tried to make sense of what they had wrought. As they surveyed the scene at battle’s end, they became different men. For a moment they were relieved of the demand to kill; other imperatives—of Christianity, of humanity, of survival rather than courage or duty—could come again to the fore. And now they had time to look at what was around them. Union colonel Luther Bradley described this transformation:

Of all the horrors the horrors of the battlefield are the worst and yet when you are in the midst of them they don’t appal one as it would seem they ought. You are engrossed with the struggle and see one and another go down and say, “there goes poor so-and-so. Will it be my turn next.” Your losses and dangers don’t oppress you ’till afterwards when you sit down quietly to look over the result or go out with details to bury the dead.

Dealing with the “afterwards” required work lest, as a Confederate soldier worried after Shiloh, the spectacle “dethrone reason or pervert the judgment.” Henry C. Taylor wrote to his parents in Wisconsin after a grim night collecting the dead and wounded from an 1863 battle in Kentucky, “I did not realize anything about the fight when we were in action, but the battlefield at midnight will bring one to a realizing sense of war. I never want to see such a sight again. I cannot give such a description of the fight as I wish I could. My head is so full that it is all jumbled up together and I can’t get it into any kind of shape.” But he could draw one clear and revealing conclusion: “Tell Mrs Diggins not to let her boy enlist.”40

Soldiers struggled to communicate to those eager to know their fate at the same time that they themselves struggled to understand what they saw. Why indeed were they still alive? As one Indiana soldier wrote in his diary in 1864, his “best men” had fallen around him, yet “I am not better than they.” William Stilwell of Georgia confessed to his wife the day after Antietam, “I am in good health this morning as far as my body is concerned, but in my mind I am perplexed.” Unable to explain, soldiers tried to describe, invoking the raw physicality of carnage and suffering. Even as survivors they could not escape the literal touch of death, which assaulted the senses. First there was the smell. “The dead and dying actually stink upon the hills,” W. D. Rutherford wrote his wife after the Seven Days Battles around Richmond. For a radius of miles, the “mephitic effluvia” caused by rotting bodies ensured that even if the dead were out of sight, they could not be out of mind. And then there were the thousands of bodies. Men had become putrefied meat, not so much killed as slaughtered, with “nothing to distinguish them from so many animals.” Stepping accidentally on a dead man’s leg felt to James Wood Davidson’s “boot-touch like a piece of pickled pork—hard and yet fleshy,” and he leaped back with alarm. Soldiers looked with horror upon bodies that seemed to change color as they rotted, commenting frequently upon a transformation that must have borne considerable significance in a society and a war in which race and skin color were of definitive importance. “The faces of the dead,” one northern Gettysburg veteran described, “as a general rule, had turned black—not a purplish discoloration, such as I had imagined in reading of the ‘blackened corpses’ so often mentioned in descriptions of battlegrounds, but a deep bluishblack, giving to a corpse with black hair the appearance of a negro.”41

Witnesses to battle’s butchery often wrote of the impossibility of crossing the field without walking from one end to the other atop the dead. “They paved the earth,” a soldier wrote after the Battle of Williamsburg in 1862. Grant found the same after Shiloh: “I saw an open field…so covered with dead that it would have been possible to walk across the clearing, in any direction, stepping only on dead bodies without a foot touching the ground.” With grim precision Eugene Blackford described a two-acre area at Fredericksburg containing 1,350 dead Yankees; others estimated stretches of a mile or more at Antietam or Shiloh where every step had to be planted on a dead body. Men were revolted both by the dishonor to the slain beneath their feet and by the pollution represented by such distasteful contact with the dead. Like a modern snapshot, this oft-repeated representation of battle’s horror graphically portrayed in the freeze-frame of a picture what soldiers could not narrate in a sequence of words. With vividness and detail, for the senses rather than for the reason or intellect, this recurrent image communicated the unspeakable.42

Men wept. Even as he acknowledged that “it does not look well for a soldier to cry,” John Casler of the Stonewall Brigade knew “I could not help it.” Benjamin Thompson of the 111th New York affirmed that after Gettysburg “no words can depict the ghastly picture.” He “could not long endure the gory, ghastly spectacle. I found my head reeling, the tears flowing and my stomach sick at the sight.” Colonel Francis Pierce confessed that “such scenes completely unman me.” Battle changed the living to the dead, humans into animals, and strong men into “boys…crying like children”—or perhaps even into women with their supposed inability to control their flowing tears. As Walter Lee wrote his mother from the front in June 1862, “I don’t believe I am the same being I was two weeks ago, at least I don’t think as I used to and things don’t seem as they did.”43

One way soldiers became different men was by resisting and repressing the unbearable horror. “The feelings of a soldier walking over his first battle-field and over his second, are widely different,” a southern newspaper observed. Men wrote of “hardening,” numbing, or becoming “calloused” or even indifferent to others’ deaths as well as to the prospect of their own. A Union surgeon, surrounded in Virginia by “a horrible spectacle of human misery,” saw this transformation in attitude as a blessing, regarding it as a “wise provision of divine providence that man can accommodate himself to any & every circumstance, at first no matter how revolting.” A seasoned soldier could sleep or eat amid the bodies of the dead; “all signs of emotion…or ordinary feelings of tenderness and sympathy” disappeared. With a gesture that reflected either a jocular insensitivity or an ironic anger that may well have shocked and surprised his wife, Isaac Hadden of New York invited her to join him at dinner “in the enemy’s rifle pits where the dead lay around crawling away with dear little worms called maggots…I was kind of hungry and got used to the pretty sights.” Union colonel Charles Wainwright reported that when another soldier fell against him proclaiming himself a dead man, “I had no more feeling for him, than if he had tripped over a stump and fallen; nor do I think it would have been different had he been my brother.” Private Wilbur Fisk of Vermont resorted to irony in his attempt to depict soldiers’ changing attitudes: “The more we get used to being killed, the better we like it.”44

Soldiers acted with as little concern as if it were not men but “hogs dying around them.” Human life diminished sharply in value, and the living risked becoming as dehumanized as the dead. Soldiers perhaps found it a relief to think of themselves not as men but as machines—without moral compass or responsibility, simply the instruments of others’ direction and will. As a common soldier, Angus Waddle believed he was “but a machine by which fame and glory is manufacted for some great Gen.’” Texan Elijah Petty explained to his wife that “we have no right to think. Others have been appointed to think for us and we like the automation must kick (or work) when the wire is pulled.” Civilians caring for the fallen in battle’s immediate aftermath adopted a similar strategy. Katherine Wormeley, who served on a hospital ship during the Peninsula Campaign, believed that to permit herself to “feel acutely at such times is merely selfish.” It was imperative “to put away all feeling. Do all you can, and be a machine—that’s the way to act; the only way.”45

While many soldiers welcomed this numbing as a means of escaping the horrors around them, others worried about the implications of such detachment. “The fact that many men get so accustomed to the thing, that they can step about among the heaps of dead bodies, many of them their friends and acquaintances[,] without any particular emotion, is the worst of all,” a Federal officer observed. Indifference to suffering and death was “demoralizing,” a failure to care about what should matter most in human life. A religious tract widely distributed in the Confederate army issued a stern “warning to soldiers.” “Guard against unfeeling recklessness,” it cautioned. “By familiarity with scenes of violence and death, soldiers often become apparently indifferent to suffering and anguish, and appear to be destitute of the ordinary sensibilities of our humanity.” Hardening represented in the eyes of the church an abandonment of the compassion that lay at the core of human and Christian identity. Loss of feeling was at base a loss of self—a kind of living death that could make even survivors casualties of war.46

Killing was the essence of war. But it also challenged men’s most fundamental assumptions about the sanctity of their own and other human lives. Killing produced transformations that were not readily reversible: the living into the dead, most obviously, but the survivors into different men as well, men required to deny, to numb basic human feeling at costs they may have paid for decades after the war ended, as we know twentieth-and twenty-first-century soldiers from Vietnam to Iraq continue to do; men who, like James Garfield, were never quite the same again after seeing fields of slaughtered bodies destroyed by men just like themselves.

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