Book Review: Fighting Means Killing: Civil War Soldiers and the Nature of Combat


by Jonathan M. Steplyk

Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2018. Pp. x, 296+. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN: 070062628X

Soldiers and the Experience of Killing

Relying on extensive research in diaries, letters, memoirs, and the like, Steplyk, who teaches at Texas Christian University and UT Arlington, explores the ways in which Civil War soldiers coped with the necessity and experience of killing, not only during the conflict, but also in reflection during the years after it.

Steplyk opens with a look at the religious and moral “baggage” which the troops carried into service. He devotes several chapters to the ways in which men coped with various aspects of killing, from revulsion to elation and much nuance in between. So a chapter on how men reacted to the experience of killing during battle, is followed by one on the “language” of killing, fraught with euphemisms and gallows humor. There follows a chapter on the experience of hand-to-hand combat, then one on snipers, addressing not only how they coped with their mode of killing but also how their comrades perceived them; many observers considered sniping close to murder.

Steplyk devotes an entire chapter to “The Extremes of Killing”, that is massacre, murder, and vengeance. This sets that stage for his final chapter, in which he addresses the particularly brutal encounters between African-American men in Blue and Confederate troops, both carrying very different “baggage” into battle.

Steplyk makes a point of taking into account the many surprising acts of mercy or charity on the battlefield. So we learn of instances when troops ceased firing on a retreating enemy or succored the wounded and dying during brief unofficial ‘truces’.

Fighting Means Killing breaks new ground in understanding how Civil War soldiers managed the problem of killing, and is certainly important reading not only for those interested in the Blue and Gray, but also in experience of combat in any war.


Note: Fighting Means Killing is also available in several e-editions.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

Buy it at



Help Keep Us Soaring

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling. We need your help in reversing that trend. We would like to add 20 new subscribers this month.

Each month we count on your subscriptions or contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage. A contribution is not a donation that you can deduct at tax time, but a form of crowdfunding. We store none of your information when you contribute..
Subscribe   Contribute   Close