Alexander Hamilton once said, “When the sword is once drawn, the passions of men observe no bounds of moderation.” The American Civil War came into being due to these “passions of men”, and the average men, who went into the war with such gusto, got slapped into the harsh reality of war. The Civil War ushered in a new era of fighting, with new tactics, new weapons, and new strategies. However, as the first of major changes, the transition took time, and that time cost the lives of thousands of men through no fault of their own. This war was one of change, and the soldiers that fought it changed the most. Civilians strode into the war in garish “uniforms,” soldiers clashed with their former countrymen, killers dealt with the aftermath, and war veterans went home to lives that would never be the same; all due to the unbounded “passions of men.”
The brave men who fought in the American Civil War were untrained and undisciplined, and the number of volunteers that flooded recruiting stations was too vast for either government to accept them all. Enthused with patriotic sentiments, civilians who chose fighting for the preservation of the Union, or perhaps to punish the rebellious South, craved the “glory” of battle. Even as the numerous state militias proudly wore gaudy, impractical uniforms and excitedly waited for the fighting, the few seasoned generals they had, attempted to whip them into a functioning army. This was not an easy task, seeing as the would-be soldiers consistently undermined any and every authority figure by ignoring orders, asking for reasons to obey, and breaking rank whenever the felt the urge.
Not to mention that the number of commanders who knew how to turn civilians into warriors was dreadfully low. None of these men had a clue what was in store for them, in what would be a much longer and bloodier war than they expected. Through the excited eyes of young volunteers, the war looked to them like a “great adventure,” and those who were not be accepted went home with hanging heads.1 Men saw the Civil War as a chance to defend “The land of my childhood my love and my tears; the land of my birth and my early sunny years.”2 The sword had been drawn, and the men of the Union army gave off an aura of “passion” for the war.
Going into the war, absolutely none of the excited soldiers anticipated the mass slaughter; nonetheless, it would soon seem commonplace. It was the killing that changed the soldiers the most. One Union soldier wrote, “I am aposed to one man killing another,” but “when we are attacked and our lives are in danger by a gang of men aposed to the best government on earth I shall fight.” Most of the army shared this aversion to killing, except when the “passions” of the patriotic man called for it. Soldiers rationalized the bloodbath by looking at it as duty and self-defense rather than killing. Another factor that helped to keep soldiers’ consciences clean was the anonymity of working as a single unit. Even as this helped men make sense of the killing that took place in structured battle, the modern war tactics made it harder because of the new level of intimacy.
This war was unique in that the new weapons and strategies allowed commanders to give soldiers more freedom within the structure of the army. Fighting in wooded areas and trench warfare constantly “undermined” the traditional patterns of war, and gave soldiers the freedom to shoot when they chose and who they chose. The drills and automatic movements caused the individual soldier to react without thinking about the unspeakable act of killing another human while in an orderly formation. The individual worried about making sure that he and his comrades survived the battle by whatever means necessary. However, when working in smaller groups, in more intimate settings, the decision to pull the trigger was more difficult. Regardless of how difficult it was in the beginning of a soldier’s Civil War experience, by the end of the war, there were those who enjoyed the killing, the revenge.
Men worked as a single unit in the fray of battle, but it was in the aftermath that they had the time to process the carnage their unit had wrought. Men spoke of a “hardening,” of becoming desensitized to seeing mounds of lifeless human bodies. A Union Colonel said that during the battle “You are engrossed with the struggle,” therefore “Your losses and dangers don’t oppress you ‘til afterwards when you sit down quietly to look over the result or go out with details to bury the dead.” The shock of seeing that many men dead disturbed the “green” Union troops. Soldiers wrote home speaking of the “rank” smell and grotesque remains that littered the ground the day after a battle. One Union soldier could not bring himself to describe the monstrous site of a day old battle field; he merely told his parents “Tell Mrs. Diggins not to let her boy enlist.”
The soldiers found this the hardest to face, so naturally they pushed it aside. A southern newspaper plainly said, “The feelings of a soldier walking over his first battle-field and over his second are widely different.” Eventually seasoned soldiers were able to eat, sleep, walk, and talk among the piles of dead bodies without a second thought. In the same fashion, this forced disregard for human life, risking “dehumanizing” those left alive. Soldiers treated the bodies left over with no more compassion than a slaughtered pig. When the “passions of men” are worn, the men are left with what they wrought.
After the soldiers had done their part and effectively won the war, they made the transition from trained killer to civilian. The first step was gathering all of the troops from their scattered locations across the country and getting them to their respective homes.5 When they finally arrived home, the changes the war had caused became painfully obvious to the veterans loved ones. One soldier’s mother, Henrietta Maria Benson said, “He came home so changed that his best friends did not know him…” Men returning home cast aside their weapons and returned to the “real world,” but the transition varied from man to man.6 For a lucky few it was as simple as “picking up the pieces” and “moving on.” The rest of the men battled mental problems, most likely what is now known to be Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In regards to a Civil War veteran, an unknown person said, “His rambling letters show someone who was confused and a little paranoid. But they also show flashes of clarity and awareness and give crucial clues about his background to help fill in some of the large blank spots in his history.”
The tremendous stress and trauma of the bloodiest war in American history changed the men who fought it almost beyond recognition. The “passions” were long gone, and the lasting effect was extremely prominent in the men who marched home. Along with coping with returning from war, soldiers as well as civilians had to come to terms with all of the lives lost. The most lasting effect of the Civil War was the loss. Mary Todd Lincoln lived the remainder of her life in mourning clothes; A soldier’s mother spent years after the Surrender at Appomattox hoping her missing son would return home; a man named Henry Struble honored a grave that mistakenly bore his name by laying flowers yearly.
Men who had once been fathers, brothers, cousins, uncles, and husbands laid unadorned and unknown in unidentified graves. The death that surrounded the Civil War was often shrouded in mystery, which made it all the more difficult for loved ones back home. The lack of information regarding a majority of the deaths in the war made it more difficult for civilians to accept those deaths.
Change was the primary theme of the Civil War, and that change presented itself the most in the brave men who fought in the war. A soldier’s mentality and ability to cope with what he had wrought evolved dramatically throughout the war. The men who walked into the war were not the same as those who walked out when it was over. Soldiers had to face tragic losses and deal with the deaths that they personally caused. Upon returning to civilian life, most men were unrecognizable to the people who had been closest to them. After all, “When the sword is once drawn, the passions of men observe no bounds of moderation,” and those passions wreaked a permanent havoc on the country.