Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Civil War As Seen by a Foot Soldier in the West

I just finished reading The Story of a Common Soldier of Army Life in the Civil War 1861-1865 by Leander Stillwell. I read the Gutenburg Project version of the book, which I recommend as easy to read and well illustrated. Here is my post on the first part of the book.

Leander Stillwell in 1863 and later in life
Stillwell joined the army at age 18 in January of 1862 and ended the war as a First Lieutenant in September 1865. Most of the time he served as a non-commissioned officer. He was in the Battle of Shiloh (Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, April 1862), one of the great battles of the war. He was in the thick of battle on the first day, but his unit was held in reserve on the second day. His regiment was present at the siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi (mid 1863), but its duty was to guard the railroad which was the vital supply line for the Union army and he did not participate in direct combat. He was at the taking of Little Rock, Arkansas in  September 1863, but skillful leadership on the part of the Union general managed that without a major battle. And, he was within hearing of the Battle of Nashville, Tennessee (December 1864) but stationed at Murfreesboro, a fort where his regiment was again guarding the railroad; in that location he was involved in a major firefight in which many of his unit were captured. He describes another firefight during his time at Murfreesboro when he was nearly killed twice, but survived unwounded.  There were a couple of other skirmishes mentioned in the book, but his regiment with a nominal strength of 800 to 900 men (many more counting replacements)  had only 37 men killed in battle during more than 3 and 1/2 years of war. (The fighting in other theaters of the war was of course, much more lethal.)

Thus Stillwell's war was spent primarily in camp, in training, and in duty guarding things critical to the war effort. Reading the book it is pretty clear that he envied the men who fought in more of the larger battles, but that he recognized that his duty was to serve wherever the army sent him at whatever duty it assigned. Most of that duty must have been pretty boring. The hopes for adventure that the 18 year old recruit set off with were pretty quickly dashed, and the man became resigned to a long hard war.

A major impression left by the book is that life in the army was really hard, even when not in battle. The food was very simple -- beans, dried peas, hardtack, salt pork and bacon seemed to provide most of the diet -- with very little fresh food other than what the solder might pick from the forest or obtain foraging while on march.  Soldiers basically had to cook their own food, and until they learned how to do so, the results were not only ugly, but unhealthy. Uniforms were poorly fitted, as were shoes. A lot of the marching was apparently done thorough mud or water, and the soldiers would carry their shoes and go barefoot. There was a lot of marching, and at first the officers did not know how to give rest breaks during the long marches, The soldiers often slept in tents, sometimes what in my youth we called pup tents, and had a single blanket to sleep with; some of the cold nights of winter, when on guard duty and denied a fire, must have been very uncomfortable indeed. The sanitation in camps was often bad, and disease struck often, even after the soldiers learned to prepare their food more safely. Stillwell himself came down with malaria and later with what he called rheumatism (but which I suspect was a complication of the malaria) and was seriously ill for months -- including a bout in the field hospital.

A couple of times in the book the author talks about the motivation of the troops. He only mentions the preservation of the Union, and does not mention the ending of slavery as an institution and the emancipation of slaves; indeed, he seems to share the prejudice of the time. It seems however, that what he means by the preservation of the union is the survival of a nation with no king and no aristocracy, one where there is little discrimination by rank and where men of ability can rise in the world.

The 61st Illinois Volunteer Regiment in which Stillwell served seems from the book to have been quite egalitarian. The men had been recruited from a relatively small area of south-western Illinois, and each knew others from home. There seems to have been a relatively informal relationship between ranks, and a relatively pragmatic approach to the work at hand. Certainly Stillwell was able to rise quickly, with five promotions in 3 and 1/2 years. While the original senior officers of the regiment were selected for their political prominence, they were older and found the life very difficult, resigning eventually. Stillwell comments favorably on the West Point trained officers with prior wartime experience, on immigrants serving as officers who had served in European armies, and on officers who had risen in rank due as they learned their jobs and performed them well. He also mentions that later in life, as a judge from Kansas, he was able to fairly easily get to meet President Arthur, and to meet and spend some time with General Sherman, who what then the Chief of Staff of the Army.

I quote here a long passage from Chapter 24:
I suppose, in reminiscences of this nature, one should give his impressions, or views, in relation to that much talked about subject,—"Courage in battle." Now, in what I have to say on that head, I can speak advisedly mainly for myself only. I think that the principal thing that held me to the work was simply pride; and am of the opinion that it was the same thing with most of the common soldiers. A prominent American functionary some years ago said something about our people being "too proud to fight." With the soldiers of the Civil War it was exactly the reverse,—they were "too proud to run";—unless it was manifest that the situation was hopeless, and that for the time being nothing else could be done. And, in the latter case, when the whole line goes back, there is no personal odium attaching to any one individual; they are all in the same boat. The idea of the influence of pride is well illustrated by an old-time war story, as follows: A soldier on the firing line happened to notice a terribly affrighted rabbit running to the rear at the top of its speed. "Go it, cotton-tail!" yelled the soldier. "I'd run too if I had no more reputation to lose than you have." 
It is true that in the first stages of the war the fighting qualities of American soldiers did not appear in altogether a favorable light. But at that time the fact is that the volunteer armies on both sides were not much better than mere armed mobs, and without discipline or cohesion. But those conditions didn't last long,—and there was never but one Bull Run. 
Enoch Wallace was home on recruiting service some weeks in the fall of 1862, and when he rejoined the regiment he told me something my father said in a conversation that occurred between the two. They were talking about the war, battles, and topics of that sort, and in the course of their talk Enoch told me that my father said that while he hoped his boy would come through the war all right, yet he would rather "Leander should be killed dead, while standing up and fighting like a man, than that he should run, and disgrace the family." I have no thought from the nature of the conversation as told to me by Enoch that my father made this remark with any intention of its being repeated to me. It was sudden and spontaneous, and just the way the old backwoodsman felt. But I never forgot it, and it helped me several times. For, to be perfectly frank about it, and tell the plain truth, I will set it down here that, so far as I was concerned, away down in the bottom of my heart I just secretly dreaded a battle. But we were soldiers, and it was our business to fight when the time came, so the only thing to then do was to summon up our pride and resolution, and face the ordeal with all the fortitude we could command. And while I admit the existence of this feeling of dread before the fight, yet it is also true that when it was on, and one was in the thick of it, with the smell of gun-powder permeating his whole system, then a signal change comes over a man. He is seized with a furious desire to kill. There are his foes, right in plain view, give it to 'em, d—— 'em!—and for the time being he becomes almost oblivious to the sense of danger. 
And while it was only human nature to dread a battle,—and I think it would be mere affectation to deny it, yet I also know that we common soldiers strongly felt that when fighting did break loose close at hand, or within the general scope of our operations, then we ought to be in it, with the others, and doing our part. That was what we were there for, and somehow a soldier didn't feel just right for fighting to be going on all round him, or in his vicinity, and he doing nothing but lying back somewhere, eating government rations. 
But, all things considered, the best definition of true courage I have ever read is that given by Gen. Sherman in his Memoirs, as follows: 
"I would define true courage," (he says,) "to be a perfect sensibility of the measure of danger, and a mental willingness to endure it." (Sherman's Memoirs, revised edition, Vol. 2, p. 395.) But, I will further say, in this connection, that, in my opinion, much depends, sometimes, especially at a critical moment, on the commander of the men who is right on the ground, or close at hand. This is shown by the result attained by Gen. Milroy in the incident I have previously mentioned. And, on a larger scale, the inspiring conduct of Gen. Sheridan at the battle of Cedar Creek, Virginia, is probably the most striking example in modern history of what a brave and resolute leader of men can accomplish under circumstances when apparently all is lost. And, on the other hand, I think there is no doubt that the battle of Wilson's Creek, Missouri, on August 10, 1861, was a Union victory up to the time of the death of Gen. Lyon, and would have remained such if the officer who succeeded Lyon had possessed the nerve of his fallen chief. But he didn't, and so he marched our troops off the field, retreated from a beaten enemy, and hence Wilson's Creek figures in history as a Confederate victory. (See "The Lyon Campaign," by Eugene F. Ware, pp. 324-339.) I have read somewhere this saying of Bonaparte's: "An army of deer commanded by a lion is better than an army of lions commanded by a deer." While that statement is only figurative in its nature, it is, however, a strong epigrammatic expression of the fact that the commander of soldiers in battle should be, above all other things, a forcible, determined, and brave man.
I liked this book very much. Indeed, I think I would have liked Leander Stillwell. He was clearly a simple man, one of considerable intelligence, much respected by his peers, who did his duty and took what came his way without complaint. In this book he writes of a few really good meals with the gusto that indicates he enjoyed them, but without complaining that they were so few in nearly four years. He writes well, and kept my interest throughout. He has a folksy humor, and frequently drew a smile. Yet he could also write about scenes of devastation, conveying the horror without excess.

I leave you sharing one of the many quotations Stillwell provided in his book:
"False as a war bulletin"

1 comment:

John Daly said...

I recently watched a TV program about technological innovation during the Civil War. In the early years, the South was doing very well, but the North innovated in weapons.

The North adopted the Minié ball invented in France, which could be loaded faster than the traditional spherical ball. It led to the use of rifled long guns, which were still quick to load with the new Minié balls, but were also accurate to 250 yards (rather than 50 yards as the old smooth bore muskets with spherical ball ammunition. By 1863, Southern troops seeking to use old fashioned tactics were being cut to pieces by Northern troops with the new weapons.

Artillery progressed comparably, and the Union artillery became more deadly (as well as in greater supply) than that of the South.