Returning to Our Cruelest WarRoundup: Talking About History
Michael C. C. Adams, Regents Professor of History Emeritus at Northern Kentucky University, is the author of Living Hell: The Dark Side of the Civil War and The Best War Ever: America and World War II, both published by Johns Hopkins.
I have been interested in the American Civil War since I was a child. It was even the focus of my first book, which studied the psychological factors affecting Union generalship. Our Masters the Rebels: A Speculation on Union Military Failure in the East, 1861–1865 appeared in 1978 and won the Jefferson Davis Prize from the Museum of the Confederacy. After that, I went on to study other wars, but I never lost my enjoyment of Civil War-era letters, diaries, and memoirs. These sources comprise the richest eye-witness accounts of any war in history. Literacy was widespread in the 1860s, there was no military censorship, and the Victorians were far more candid than we imagine about many topics, including the experience of combat and what soldiers do to civilians in their power.
When, as a university administrator, I needed a break from the stress of reports and committee meetings, I retreated to the library stacks. There, I devoured stories of war from soldiers and civilians. The same held true at academic conferences; between sessions, I explored the Civil War collection of whatever college I was visiting. The material was so remarkable I began to write it down: descriptions of terrible wounds and deaths, the grief of families, the misery of hospitals, the plight of starving civilians, rapes and atrocities.
At some point, collecting the stories coincided with my growing belief that we, as democratic citizens of the most powerful nation on earth, need to be fully informed about the nature of armed conflict and its impact on humanity. What better way to show the reality of war than to describe America’s greatest and most costly conflict, one that touched all classes, regions, races, and genders? By bringing the remarkable and vital folk of the 1860s back to the stage of history, I hoped to conjure the true nature of that war, reliving the struggle through their varied voices.
Eventually, I had a pivotal conversation with Robert Brugger, senior acquisitions editor at the Johns Hopkins University Press. Bob is a military veteran. He served as an officer in a combat unit in Vietnam. While still in uniform, he made a commitment to try to inform the public about the nature of armed conflict. He wanted to correct misconceptions about what happens in a theater of operations. Bob strongly encouraged me to write Living Hell, and it was he who suggested the subtitle, The Dark Side of the Civil War.
So here it is, a book about the complete human cost of the Civil War. It is arranged in a logical way to take the reader on a journey through the full experience of the war. The introduction sets the scene by recreating the milieu in which the war came. Then, in the eight chapters that follow, we escort the reader down the dirty, dusty road of war, from military enlistment to camp, then on the march, to the battlefield, and from there to the hospitals, the graves, and the haunted minds of psychologically wounded soldiers. As we draw the reader along, the landscape grows ever darker, and we deal with massive civilian deprivation and social dislocation, invasion and violation. The road then stretches to the far horizon, charting some bleaker legacies of the war, even down to the twenty-first century.
At the very end of our journey, we will take a surprise visit to a Texas railroad halt, in 1898, where some gray-haired ladies wait to make a final mute statement about the war. Care to join me?