I created this reading assignment for students because I didn’t want them to ever imagine warfare was anything but terrible.
If you want a copy, send me an email at email@example.com.
By the way, I found it was easy to get veterans to come into my classroom and talk (check this link); and I tried to make sure they gave students the real picture.
(This reading is a little more ragged than I like; but I retired in 2008; so I may get around sometime and fix it up.)
The Glory of War?
Too often we have a fool’s understanding of war. We think of waving flags, flashing swords, medals, and acts of bravery. For this reason, young men (and now young women) are sometimes anxious to get involved when fighting erupts. This was the case at the start of the Civil War, when Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941, on up to modern times. Phillip Caputo, a Vietnam veteran, once noted sadly, “War is always attractive to young men who know nothing about it.”
This mindset is a result of limited knowledge. Those who have experienced combat are normally reluctant to discuss it. Books cannot capture the taste and smell of war. Nor can TV or movies—even the “bloodiest” films made today. They cannot measure fear. They cannot quantify adrenaline. Too often, we get a romanticized version of what combat is truly like. Movie battles combine a certain excitement and glory. War seems an adventure. The star rarely dies. The “good guys” shoot with incredible accuracy. The “bad guys” can’t hit an elephant at trunk’s length.
If a hero does die, his or her death is usually quick and tidy. Good guys get to say a few last words to a friend or loved one in the movies. Most end “happily ever after” and the returning soldier wins the heart of the girl he left behind.
As a veteran of the Civil War, however, General William T. Sherman came much closer to the truth. When asked to describe what it is like when humans kill humans, he replied simply: “War is hell.”
There has never been much glamour in the business. We should never forget that. Most of the time military life can be dull. There are long periods without any fighting at all. In fact, many soldiers never see combat at all. Some serve their entire time in the military as clerks or cooks. For those who do march into battle, and serve in the field, discomforts are the rule. In 1861, for instance, what would be the glamour in lugging a heavy rifle and pack around, under a blazing sun, and being shot at for a bonus? The Civil War was full of marching men by the thousands, on dirt roads, kicking up “suffocating clouds of dust.” Soldiers rushing to reach the scene of battle at Gettysburg were pushed to march thirty miles or more in one day—an exhausting challenge. That battle, like many others, was fought in blistering heat. The troops suffered tremendously from thirst. During the fight (July 1-3, 1863), one man solved the problem by spooning water out of a muddy hoofprint to make coffee. At other times, the rains poured down on both armies. Then “General Mud” took command, as the troops like to joke. Boots grew heavy with sticky mud and wagons sank to their axels and had to be dragged out by tired animals and men. Soggy clothing, damp blankets, dripping tents and cold food were the rule in camp.
It could be a miserable life. Men in both Northern and Southern armies went days without a decent meal or change of clothing. One cavalryman complained that he had not had more than one meal a day for three weeks. I “have slept on the ground every night, generally without blankets, and [have] been in the saddle constantly,” he noted. Southern soldiers, part of an army that often lacked supplies, might march barefoot after shoes fell apart. Even one Yankee general complained of the poor conditions. Jokingly, he wrote his wife, he could only dream of being “within a few miles” of his toothbrush someday.
|Waving the flag may look glorious; but this regiment, the First Tennessee,|
was cut to ribbons during the war.
Sam Watkins, a veteran of four years of blooding combat,
tells the story in another reading you might like.
Worse than muddy coffee or unbrushed teeth, death was a constant visitor of both armies—of all armies, in all times. And where is the glory in that? What would be “exciting” about a bullet that smashed a man’s kneecap to splinters? Did General Gabriel Paul, who was struck by a bullet in the side of his face, a shot which destroyed both eyes, experience the “glamour?” What about Bayard Wilkeson, a young officer, who had his leg nearly ripped off by a cannonball? He looked down to see it dangling by a few shreds of flesh and had to cut it off with his pocketknife.
How about the soldier described below who was hit three times in quick succession during the Battle of the Wilderness?
During the day’s fighting [said one witness] I saw a youth of about 20 years skip and yell, stung by a bullet through the thigh. He turned to limp to the rear. After a few steps he stopped, then kicked out his leg once or twice to see the wound. He looked at it attentively for an instant, then turned and took his place in the ranks and resumed firing.
In a minute or two the wounded soldier dropped his rifle, and clasping his left arm, exclaimed: “I am hit again.” He sat down behind the battle ranks and tore off the sleeve of his shirt. The wound was very slight—not much more than skin deep. He tied his handkerchief around it, picked up his rifle, and took position alongside of me.
I said: “You are fighting in bad luck today. You had better get away from here.” He turned his head to answer me. His head jerked, he staggered, then fell, then regained his feet. A tiny fountain of blood and teeth and bone and bits of tongue burst out of his mouth. He had been shot through the jaws; the lower one was broken and hung down. I looked directly into his open mouth, which was ragged and bloody and tongue-less. He cast his rifle furiously on the ground and staggered off.
Never forget. War is the organization of large bodies of human beings for one purpose. That is: to kill and maim the greatest number of enemies possible. It is the business of reducing other men and women to something that might pass as roadkill.
|Killed in action on April 2, 1865.|
Asks students what they think it would be like to die on the last day of a war.
The Civil War has been called the first “modern war.” What this means is that new and better weapons made killing more efficient [easier; faster]. The concentration of rifle fire at the Battle of Spotsylvania was so great that trees two feet in diameter were shot in half. “In the tornado of fire and iron,” one survivor recalled, “no living man nor thing could stand.” The slaughter at Gettysburg was typical. A total of 160,000 men took part. In only three days more than 38,000 were captured, wounded or killed.
Considering the size of the armies involved, this was a war of incredible bloodshed. One Southern family sent twelve sons to the fighting. Only three survived. Another woman lost five brothers and her fiancé. In some battles entire units were destroyed. The 1st Minnesota, a northern regiment at Gettysburg, entered the fight with 262 men. Only 47 remained unhurt at the end. Co F , of the 26th North Carolina, began the fight with 90 men. All were killed, wounded, or captured over the course of three days. Another officer reported that eleven different men carried his unit’s flag at the Battle of Antietam. (The flag or “colors” was the focus of heavy fire in those days.) The first ten soldiers were all swept away by enemy bullets.
Often men died bravely, but achieved absolutely nothing. At the Battle of Fredericksburg, Union troops charged Rebel forces protected behind stone walls and in a sunken roadway. Those who survived remembered rushing ahead, only to meet an “avalanche of artillery” fire. “We were almost blown off our feet,” recalled one survivor. The storm of fire pressed them back like “a mighty wind.” A second charge was ordered and made, with no better result. Only 20 or 30 minutes had passed. Yet, over half of the thousands of soldiers involved were mowed down. Afterward the battlefield was covered with a thick carpet of blue bodies.
Those men had made two brave attacks. Yet courage brought no reward. No soldiers, no matter how courageous, could have broken that Rebel line by head-on attack. Instead, the assault resulted only in senseless slaughter and ended in heaped corpses. The charge was stupid. The bravery wasted. “This is war—‘glorious war,’” one survivor remarked bitterly. “If we could see it in its true colors it is the most horrible curse that God could inflict upon mankind.”
Perhaps the Rebel general, D. H. Hill, said it best, after another equally hopeless charge. At Malvern Hill it had been his soldiers who had to attack, in the face of dozens of Yankee cannon. By the hundreds, his men had died. Hill could only choke out the words, “It was not war, it was murder.”
The Civil War, like all wars, brought death in all its forms. Thirty thousand prisoners died from disease and starvation in squalid Confederate prison camps. Another 25,000 met a similar fate in equally bad Northern jails. Men died when wagons they were driving tipped over and crushed them. They died from accidental gunshot wounds, while cleaning weapons they thought were not loaded. They were killed when warships sank in storms, when railroad bridges they were crossing in trains collapsed. They were killed when horses they were caring for kicked them in their heads. Death came for them in many different ways. General Stonewall Jackson and his men won fame as the “Foot Cavalry,” for the speed with which they reached the battlefield. But on the way to the fight at Cedar Mountain, eight of his soldiers died from sunstroke and heat exhaustion. Wounded troops at Fort Donelson froze to death after being shot down on the wintery battleground. At Chancellorsville, gunfire set thick forest ablaze. Men too badly injured to move were burned alive. On another occasion, a 16-year-old Rebel was hit by a shot that broke his thigh. By chance he fell in a nest of wasps. The bullet and stinging wasps cost him his life. Tens of thousands of men in both armies and both navies died from pneumonia, flu, or that hero’s disease: severe diarrhea.
No glory there.
The true story of this war, or any other, is a tale of shattered human beings, suffering and immense sorrow. Jeb Stewart was one of the most famous horsemen of the Civil War. He was handsome, dashing and brave—a general at age 28—the type of man women might faint for. He was a corpse by age 31, killed by enemy fire at the Battle of Yellow Tavern in 1864. General John Hood lost a leg from one wound. Then he had an arm torn apart from wrist to biceps in another battle. Henry Kyd Douglas was hit six times by enemy fire in the course of three years.
For the wounded, war could be a horror story, in what one historian has called an “Age of Amputation.” Following each battle, hospitals looked the same. General George Armstrong Custer walked into one where doctors had a waist-high pile of arms and legs. Another visitor at a different site described “a heap of human fingers, feet, legs and arms” near the door. “I shall not soon forget the bare-armed surgeons, with bloody instruments,” he added. The rasping sound of saws on bone quickly drove him from the area.
|Blurry picture; but that's a bone saw at top.|
|Not all soldiers are heroes, either.|
This picture by Winslow Homer captures a soldier "playing sick."
There was, of course, great courage and bravery displayed during the Civil War. There was even a certain amount of glory and excitement. For the most part, however, this war was like all other wars. It was an exercise in the creation of death. It meant suffering multiplied beyond imagination. We should not ignore that fact. The war meant suffering and loss for thousands of soldiers, sailors and families.
And someone had to explain every death to loved ones left behind. What could the mother of a sailor on the U.S.S. Cumberland say on hearing the news, that the vessel had been sunk in battle and her precious son lost? Who could comfort Hetty Carey? She had been engaged to an officer for three years. Finally, she married him—only to end up back in the same church, three weeks later, for his funeral. Eliza Hoffman received the news that her boyfriend had been killed. She spent the next year in her room, speaking to no one, with meals left at the door.
What did it mean—what could it feel like—for the Northern wife who received this letter?
We’re going into action soon, and I send my love. Kiss the baby, and if I am not killed I will write to you after the fight.
Loving Daniel never wrote again—for he was killed a few hours later. By war’s end, 600,000 Americans on both sides had met the same fate.
Pick some soldier in this reading and write a paragraph about how they felt about their experiences in war. You can be a ghost if you like, or a loved one, back home, who receives bad news.
|Another charge that went for naught: the 54th Massachusetts at Fort Fisher, 1864.|
 I enlisted in the Marines in 1968, and volunteered twice to go to Vietnam. But I ended up, by luck, not going. Instead, I spent my time in the Corps doing paperwork as a supply clerk. As I used to tell my students, “I defended the country with a staple gun.”
 The author once had a Vietnam veteran talk to his classes. He told students he went 63 days, while out in the jungle, without a change of clothing. The class groaned. He added, “You really didn’t notice after the first week.”
 We know at least one female took part in Pickett’s Charge; and several women, disguised as men, served in combat during these years.
 Students should not be left to imagine that warfare is glamorous—but a discussion of duty and patriotism might also be important.
As for the reality: I used to have veterans come to my class and talk. One Vietnam veteran broke down in tears trying to talk about seeing his friend killed. Several vets told students they suffered from PTSD, even World War II vets, who had never heard the term when they were young. Joe Whitt, who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor and several other naval battles, told student he had the same dream every night for years. His ship exploded and he went flying into the air. As he was coming down, he put his feet together and braced his arms at his sides. And every night, when he hit the water, he woke up.
Joe had seen a U.S. warship hit by enemy fire and break in half at the Battle of Savo Island. Almost the entire crew, several hundred men, was lost.