Thursday, June 5, 2008

Memoirs and the Adventure of War pt. 1

Was the “just for fun and adventure” justification for joining the army a postwar concoction? Did the memoirists writing in the 1880s and 1890s use this excuse as a way to get around discussing the real reasons they went to war in 1861? When we accept “adventure” as a valid reason for men to go to war in 1861, do we also accept the program of Lost Causeism and sectional reconciliation that helped obscure the underlying issues of race and slavery that drove the nation to war?

John Jackman of the 9th Kentucky told of his instant decision to seek the romantic life of a man-at-arms, and his narrative is similar to many veterans’ accounts.

I walked down to the get the daily papers, and as I was passing in, W[illiam] S[toner] said to me, “Let us go to Bloomfield to-night, and join the party going through to Dixie!” or something to that effect. I had scarcely thought of such a thing before; but in an instant my mind was made up, and I answered, “All right.” ... Taking nothing but a traveling shawl, I mounted and joined W.S. at his home. We were soon on the road, two modern Don Quixotes starting out to seek adventures.

My concern for the “fun and adventure” thesis is that – as many veterans today and yesterday will know – war stops being fun very, very quickly. To couch that in McPherson’s terms, adventure can be a fine Initial or Enlistment Motivation that gets men into the ranks but is far from a Sustaining Motivation that keeps them there. When the novelty wears off, the soldier had to have something to keep him in the service. Now, usually that something is “small group cohesion,” the loyalty to comrades built over time by combat veterans. But Civil War memoirists will universally note that they were not in combat before the rosy shine wore right off military life. There has to be something else, some bigger picture they were fighting for, that kept these men in the ranks.

We must note that when soldiers talk about yearning for the glories of the soldiering life, they couple those sentiments with discussion of public pressure. The small communities from which the Civil War soldier was drawn leaned heavily on its young men to serve in the military to prove themselves men. Military service was a natural rite of passage for a new generation of townies. So, Marcus Toney of the 1st Tennessee wrote that “The young ladies were as enthusiastic as the young men; and if they found a fellow lukewarm, he was threatened with a petticoat and was not allowed to hang up his had in their father’s hall.” Young men were supposed to crave the adventure of military service because proving themselves in that adventure would secure their place as marriageable men in the community. The “fun adventure” of military becomes much more meaningful and important to a man’s future when seen through this light.

But concern about your own marriageability and welcoming military rites of passage speak to a larger picture of the Confederate volunteer of 1861. Generally speaking, the postwar memoirist hailed from a very narrow antebellum demographic. He was in his early twenties in 1861, was well educated, was solidly middle- or planter-class, had great exposure to slavery (i.e. lived in a slaveowning household if not owning slaves himself), and enlisted early in the war. The older, married small farmer of the late 1861 and 1862 regiments did not usually write after the war, nor did he participate in memory-constructing groups like the United Confederate Veterans, which Gaines Foster has shown to be an urban, professional-class organization that included many memoirists and contributors to veterans’ magazines in its ranks. In many ways, that older man -- who, if anyone, can claim to have enlisted for protection of farm and family from invading Union armies -- has had his voice drowned out by the younger set who wrote more prolifically during and after the war. (This is not surprising, as Glatthaar has recently shown us that the 1862 volunteer was poorer and less educated than his 1861 counterpart)

So, what did the memoirist and his relatively affluent 1861 cohort have on the line that caused them to be the first in to the army and the last out? What is he obscuring when he talks only about desiring the grand adventure of war in his writings? How have these memoirs tainted our understanding of the 1861 Confederate volunteer?

Leave your answers in the comments, and see my own in in Part 2...

No comments: