Why They Fought

Tuesday is the 150th anniversary of the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. In his eloquent new account, “Gettysburg: the Last Invasion,” the historian Allen Guelzo describes the psychology of the fighters on that day.

A battlefield is “the lonesomest place which men share together,” a soldier once observed. At Gettysburg, the men were sometimes isolated within the rolling clouds of gun smoke and unnerved by what Guelzo calls “the weird harmonic ring of bullets striking fixed bayonets.” They were often terrified, of course, sometimes losing bladder and bowel control. (Aristophanes once called battle “the terrible one, the tough one, the one upon the legs.”)

But, as Guelzo notes, the Civil War was fought with “an amateurism of spirit and an innocence of intent, which would be touching if that same amateurism had not also contrived to make it so bloody.”

Discipline was loose. Civil War soldiers were not used to subordinating themselves within large organizations. One veteran observed that in battle “men standing in line got in paroxysms of laughter.” But many were motivated by the sense that they were living up to some high moral ideal. Words like “gallant,” “valor” and “chivalric” dot their descriptions of each other’s behavior. Upon being taken prisoner, one Union soldier shook his captors’ hands and congratulated them on the “most splendid charge of the war.”

Another officer remembered battle as a “supreme minute to you; you are in ecstasies.” A Union artillery officer confessed that throughout Gettysburg “somehow or other I felt a joyous exaltation, a perfect indifference to circumstances, through the whole of that three days’ fight, and I have seldom enjoyed three days more in my life.”

In our current era, as the saying goes, we take that which is lower to be more real. We generally believe that soldiers under the gritty harshness of war are not thinking about high ideals like gallantry. They are just trying to get through the day or protect their buddies. Since World War I, as Hemingway famously put it, abstract words like “honor” and “glory” and “courage” often seem obscene and pretentious. Studies of letters sent home by soldiers in World War II suggest that grand ideas were remote from their daily concerns.

But Civil War soldiers were different. In his 1997 book “For Cause and Comrades,” James M. McPherson looked at the private letters Civil War soldiers sent to their loved ones. As McPherson noted, they ring with “patriotism, ideology, concepts of duty, honor, manhood and community.”

The soldiers were intensely political. Newspapers were desperately sought after in camp. Between battles, several regiments held formal debates on subjects like the constitutional issues raised by the war. “Ideological motifs almost leap from many pages of these documents,” McPherson reports. “It is government against anarchy, law against disorder,” a Philadelphia printer wrote, explaining his desire to fight.

The letters were also explicitly moralistic. “The consciousness of duty was pervasive in Victorian America,” McPherson writes. The letters were studded with the language of personal honor, and, above all, a desire to sacrifice, as one soldier put it, “personal feelings and inclinations to … my duty in the hour of danger.”

One of the most famous letters was written not at Gettysburg but on July 14, 1861, on the eve of the First Battle of Bull Run. It was written by Sullivan Ballou, an officer from Rhode Island. Ballou had lost his own parents when he was young and, having known “the bitter fruit of orphanage myself,” he declared himself loath to die in battle and leave his small children fatherless.

“My love for you is deathless,” he wrote to his wife. “It seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; yet my love of country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.”

It’s not just love of country that impels him, but a feeling of indebtedness to the past: “I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing — perfectly willing — to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.”

These letter writers, and many of the men at Gettysburg, were not just different than most of us today because their language was more high flown and earnest. There was probably also a greater covenantal consciousness, a belief that they were born in a state of indebtedness to an ongoing project, and they would inevitably be called upon to pay these debts, to come square with the country, even at the cost of their lives.

Makes today’s special interest politics look kind of pathetic.

Emily Meier, RIP

On behalf on Lulu:

I just received this email from Emily’s husband.


Emily died last night at a little after 9. She was peaceful and without pain. She stopped breathing for 15 seconds or so, and then took a big breath. Then stopped again for longer, and then took another breath, not as strong as the first. Then a third, and a fourth. And then no more.

She was a wonderful person and a wonderful wife.


I’m really going to miss my correspondence with her. She was a terrific friend, a wonderful writer, a devoted wife, mother and grandmother, and a political junkie extraordinaire. She’s at peace now dammit.

I will never forget her generosity, humor, and intelligence, especially demonstrated when she discussed Suite Harmonic with us.

Discussion of Suite Harmonic by Emily Meier

There’s something about the words below that resonate with me and remind me, again, how truly awful war is.  This is toward the end of John Given’s enlistment in the Union Army and he’s quite close to returning home to Harmony, a greatly changed man, in a greatly changed nation.

……it struck him even more how blasted Decatur was.  It was very easy to get tired of looking at nothing except a soldier’s face and, without women, there was singular lack of beauty.  And color was missing.  Clothes were the sea of uniforms, faded to a vague blue, which the men, in the heat, shed as often as they could.  In a place where a normal year would have meant a host of summer flowers everywhere, the ground was unplanted-chewed up and battered by the boots of so many men.  There were no blossoms of any color.  There was no foliage.  There was only the wasted, treeless town and the mud and wood of the fort.

Emily will be checking in periodically so if you want to leave a question for her I’m sure she’ll be more than happy to respond.  It’s impossible to pin everyone down to a specific discussion time so just come in and out as time allows over the weekend.


Mark adds:

Suite Harmonic is a lovingly crafted narrative of war and family woven from personal written histories, especially from the letters of John Given and his sister Kate.  It is essentially a novel of manners interspersed with battle scenes.  For those of us who love Civil War stories, as I do, it is satisfying.  The main characters, John and Kate, become known to us as they become assimilated, as their Irish Catholicism fades, as they mature, and as they internalize the issues of their time.

That John survives Shiloh is amazing, that he learns that he will keep his head in combat is what gives him resiliency throughout the War.  Kate, back home in Indiana, is an interesting study in both duty and stepping out of her “place” as an Irish maid to wealthy Protestants.  Both siblings are smart and literate, which is how so much of their material survived.

The eventual love stories, after the War, especially Kate and Harry’s, are truly sweet.

The tragedies of 19th C. health care follow the characters into peace time.

A picky critic might find two anachronisms of speech, but I was not picky and did not catalog them.  My own disappointment with the novel was limited to my high expectations for it – I love historical novels.  I have been through all of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels twice.  Suite Harmonic has no plot.  Think of a lifetime series of interconnected events as told through the eyes of two siblings, in which there is no struggle between good and evil, no climax, no anti-climax, and no denouement.  John and Kate were surely so likable and admirable as presented by ABC, and the incidents themselves so fascinating in detail and social (or combat) observation, as to allow Suite Harmonic to stand without a plot.  I think it does actually present a harmonic suite of the interplay of lives shaped by the Civil War, and by the integration of immigrants into society, and by the daily struggles of people we can still recognize, although their hardships were of a different time.  I am sure it does what Emily intended it to do, and that my expectations were irrelevant.

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