Growing up I came to be a student of the Civil War (I don't like to use the word "buff") because of my great-grandmother. She was born in 1898. As a child, she spent time around her grandfathers, both Confederate veterans. So too were their brothers and her grandmothers' brothers. And, being an Irish family, there were also large numbers of assorted cousins, etc, who all "wore the gray". We played "North and South" outside as kids, refighting various Civil War battles. I began to read Civil War books almost as soon as I learned how. I went off to college and got a couple of degrees in History, the Civil War never far from my head. Even now as I type this, a I have a large bookshelf and a half full of Civil War titles in the next room. I add to my collection every chance I get. (Just ask The Redhead!) One of my new additions to the shelf is what prompted today's post.
When I was in grad school, I took a military history course which was terrible! The professor was one of those who should never be allowed in front of a classroom. The one good thing I took out of that class was reading the book The Best War Ever by Michael C. Adams. It is a really good (and somewhat controversial) book about World War Two. Anyway, I had not read anything else by the author until yesterday when I cracked open Living Hell: The Dark Side of the Civil War. Let me warn you, Gentle Readers, if you do not want graphic depictions of Civil War combat, hospitals, etc, then do not read it. Otherwise, make sure you grab you a copy ASAP.
I spent a decade and a half as a Civil War reenactor. My clothing and gear were as close to the original as I could get them. I have taken part in preservation marches, school days, battles, and museum presentations. Many, many times I experienced that "magic moment" where for an all too fleeting second, it feels as though you've been transported back in time. But there are a few things reenactments never get write. Most reenactors are older than the real soldiers were, reenacting being an expensive hobby and there aren't too many 18 year olds than can shell out all the dough necessary to put together a good impression. Second, many, many reenactors are, to put it politely, better fed than the average soldier of the era. And last, a reenacted Civil War battle looks and smells nothing like the real thing.
The Civil War is one of the most, if not THE most romanticized era in American History. I'm not really sure why that is. I reenacted as long as my body would allow it, but I'd be damned if I'd go back and live in a time period before antibiotics. (Even if you could order laudanum through the mail!) Students of the Civil War like myself read hundreds of books that go over just about every single second of every single year of the War. If you want to know what a unit was doing at a particular day and time, odds are you can find out. If you want to know General Grant's bathroom schedule, I'm sure you can do that too. Precious few accounts, on the other hand, describe the sheer terror of suddenly finding yourself splattered with the brains of the man standing next to you in the ranks. Or what it was like to lay on the ground in terrible pain from a bullet wound watching surgeons hack off arms and legs while you await your turn on the table. That doesn't square with the romantic notion we have of the war.
Why aren't there more graphically realistic Civil War books and movies? I can't really say. Some have said that it is because the soldiers didn't leave graphic descriptions of things that took place, but Dr. Adams proves that they did. Is this subject too sacred for us to really do it justice? Is it, as I mentioned in a previous post, the fact that finding academic historians who are combat veterans is pretty rare and thus they have never experienced the terror and exhilaration that comes with being shot at? Or is talking about these issues sacrilegious? I have long argued that we NEED more books like this one. And not just for this war. We need them for World War One and World War Two and every other war. If we really want to do these soldiers justice, we have to acknowledge what it was really like for them. Not what we "think" it was like. What it really was like.
I've seen a lot of violent death. I've seen blood squirting from arterial bleeds. I've had brain matter drip onto my face. I've smelled the sickly sweet smell of roasted flesh. I've seen what a person's intestines look like when they are outside the body. I've experienced the gut churning fear that comes with the realization that someone is shooting at you. I've heard the screams of critically inured people as I've knelt over them, silently praying they would go into shock. I'll never get those sounds out of my head. I've smelled the coppery scent of blood mixed with urine and feces. My point is this, Dear Reader. If you add up the sum of my experiences during my public safety career, it would not equal one hour on the firing line at Antietam. Or Gettysburg. Or Franklin.
The reason why books such as Living Hell are so important is because the Civil War has been romanticized for too long. We need to understand this War for what it really was; a brutal, dehumanizing, and terrorizing experience for the soldiers and civilians who lived through it. There is no glory in seeing your best friend's head explode. There is no glory in dying of dysentery, laying in a cot full of your own filth. Books like this are a good start and we need more of them. If we do not understand (as best we can) what they went through, we can never hope to fully appreciate their sacrifices and their heroism. The war sounds and smells better in the books than it did in real life and we must always keep that in mind. Oddly enough, the novelists do a better job on this point that the historians.
My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian who, though I love reading about the Civil War, wouldn't really want to have fought in it. I'll stick to the books and hope that there are more realistic ones published in the future.