Saturday, January 26, 2013

Why they fought: Exploring the motivations of young men wearing the blue and gray

Francis Barlow (left)  (Library of Congress)
Young men of the North and South were quite frustrated with their elders by the time the first Confederate shots rained down on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

College students in New England blamed politicians for not keeping the peace, thereby setting in motion disunion, according to Kanisorn Wongsrichanalai's essay in “Children and Youth During the Civil War Era” (NYU Press).

Their counterparts in Virginia, meanwhile, were angry with “old fog(e)ys” who were not eager about secession. Labeled as "lazy, immoral, and hotheaded" the youth wanted to see Virginia restored to its glory and “progress” furthered, even in a slave society, wrote Peter S. Carmichael in “The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion” (UNC Press).

“There is a sense that Southerners are losing power and are being forced into a minority,” says Wongsrichanalai, assistant professor of history at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas.

While few were abolitionists, Northern men firmly believed in preserving the union.

The collision course of ideals arrived at Sumter and birthed four long bloody years of conflict. Hundreds of thousands of young men who believed their side was right were mowed down.

Wongsrichanalai and another Angelo State educator, Dr. William A. Taylor, will explore what made men fight in a Tuesday (Jan. 29) program entitled “Soldier Motivation and Life,” the latest in the university’s Civil War lecture series.

Topics include the reasons men volunteered, the beliefs of college-educated soldiers, small-unit cohesion and the factors that kept men fighting, even when facing certain death or injury.

Wongsrichanalai wrote his doctoral dissertation on what motivated college-educated New Englanders to fight.

Young men of that generation, he says, were taught at universities to be leaders and gentlemen. “How can I be useful? How can I be a leader in society? If I don’t do it, who will?” says Wongsrichanalai. Among the 48 individuals he studied were Francis Barlow, Joshua Chamberlain, Oliver Howard and Robert Gould Shaw.

These men from New England internalized their honor, preferring the term “character.”

“Southern honor is about public reputation and how people in the community view you,” the professor tells the Picket. “Northern honor is doing what is right despite what the public thinks about you.”

While men across the new Confederacy joined, regardless of class or privilege and because it was expected of them, educated young men in the Northeast sometimes had to contend with parents who believed someone else should do the fighting, perhaps immigrants.

“There is more of a choice for Union soldiers. Once you are in the Confederate army there is no way out,” says Wongsrichanalai, referring to Federal enlistment bounties and expiration of service.

The U.S. government eventually turned to the draft as the war wore on.

In his essay, entitled ”What Is a Person Worth at Such a Time”, Wongsrichanalai includes correspondence from Amherst College student Christopher Pennell to his father, asking permission to go.

A long war would require “men who shall fight treason from principle, & not from desire for spoils, of educated soldiers who understand what they are fighting for,” wrote Pennell. “Tom Dick & Harry will not be so ready to enlist then.”

Pennell, a young officer, was killed at the Battle of the Crater in 1864.

Southerners volunteered to defend slavery and support its expansion westward, to protect their institutions and to repel invaders, says Wongsrichanalai, a graduate of the University of Virginia and Bowdoin College in Maine.

Northerners were concerned about possible failure of the “national experiment” that followed the American Revolution.

“A lot of motivation is sustaining law and order, says Wongsrichanalai. “There was a presidential election that was contested but the Northern candidate won the election. Suddenly, these Southerners wanted to secede because they lost the election.”

All of those wearing gray and blue sought to prove their manliness and courage under fire.

Young Confederates
People in the mid-19th century, before the Civil War, did not think highly of professional soldiers, according to Wongsrichanalai. Graduates of West Point typically left the small U.S. Army to become civilian engineers.

“The view of the military (today) is certainly very different,” says the professor. “Since Vietnam, we have a much more positive view of honoring men, their service and sacrifice.”

San Angelo is home to veterans and service members at Goodfellow Air Force Base; Wongsrichanalai hopes they will be among those attending and taking part in a Q&A at the end of the program.

“This is a great opportunity to draw on experiences of people who have served in the military,” he says. “Why they enlisted, what their experiences were with combat, and how they were engaged in cultural events.”

The professors want to give students “a sense of the emotional impact of the war.” 


1 comment:

  1. Interesting to think about the internal/external differences in sense of duty and honor between the North and South.

    I guess when you and a group secede, member-of-the-group motivation becomes more prevalent. More morality and loyalty tied to preserving your community rather than perhaps a basic, more universal sense of good vs. evil for the North.