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Life and Limb: The Toll of the American Civil War home

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Class 1: Imagining War


Introduction:

Many narratives were created during the Civil War; some overlapped, others existed in tension, but all were imbedded in the official view of war as an opportunity for men to find their true selves on the battlefield through pure courage and aggression. This model of how to be a man drew deep meaning from a sentimental culture that celebrated a sensationalized view of war, where individual action, inspired by noble emotions and committed to manly heroism, could lead to a soldier’s mastery of the battlefield. How soldiers drew from and reacted against this dominant narrative helps us to understand how they came to terms with their own transformations into professional killers. Students will benefit by reading Gerald Linderman’s treatment of courage and civilian society and Alice Fahs’ study of a sentimental culture after the firing on Fort Sumter. Both pieces provide students with a broad understanding of the cultural framework that structured the perceptions of Civil War soldiers at the beginning of their military service. While a sentimental culture with courage at its core infused military life with deeper meaning and a sense of higher purpose, it also confined soldiers who could not reject the heroic vision of war without risking damage to their reputation. Almost as soon as the men entered their first camp of instruction, they discovered that army life did not always conform to the great expectations of war. The sense of entrapment among members of the rank-and-file is the focus of the second half of the class. Letters from John Pardington in Dear Sarah: Letters Home from a Soldier of the Iron Brigade and a letter from Georgia solider Wright Vinson will help students uncover and understand what informed the tensions between soldier expectations and the hopes of society.


Readings:

Primary:

Pardington, John. Dear Sarah: Letters Home from a Soldier of the Iron Brigade. Edited by Coralou Peel Lassen. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999, 11–13, 18–21.

Wright Vinson to his wife, 26 June 1862, Wright Vinson Civil War Papers, AC63-107. Georgia Division of Archives and History, Atlanta. Online Transcript.

Secondary:

Fahs, Alice. The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North & South, 1861–1865. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001, Chap. 2, Notes for Chap. 2.

Linderman, Gerald. Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War. New York: The Free Press, 1987, Chap. 5, Notes for Chap. 5.


Discussion Questions:

  • What was a sentimental culture and how did it shape the wartime outlook of civilians and soldiers?

  • How do John Pardington’s letters of September 24, 1862, and October 5, 1862, mirror the values and expectations of a sentimental culture as described by Fahs and Linderman? How does the letter describe Pardington’s military life and its affect on his view of the cultural assumptions of the very society that had sent him off to war?

  • Confederate Wright Vinson, a poor farmer from Georgia, has a much different outlook on military life than Pardington. In which ways does Vinson break from the sentimental culture of the day and why? How does Vinson’s material situation in the army and at home shape his thinking?

  • What were the ties between civilians and soldiers as described by Gerald Linderman? Do the letters of Pardington and Vinson foreshadow a gap of understanding between the home front and the army as the war progressed?

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