Book Review: The War for the Common Soldier: How Men Thought, Fought, and Survived in Civil War Armies


by Peter S. Carmichael

Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018. Pp. x, 398. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 146964309X

Billy Yank and Johnny Reb At War

There are quite a number of books that draw on soldiers’ writings to explain their experience of military life and how they coped with the horrors of battle. But in writing The War for the Common Soldier Prof. Carmichael (Gettysburg College) does something very different from the methodology of earlier writers; he resists the use of post war materials. His rationale for this is simple; postwar memoirs have often been found to be at variance with the observations and recollections produced by those very same boys in Blue or Gray during the war, as the aging veterans processed their memories.

Carmichael draws upon a rich volume of letters, in some cases dozens left by a single soldier, as well as diaries and other contemporary writings. He uses seven chapters to examine different aspects of the military experience. He integrates soldiers’ recollections of their everyday life, comforts and pains, coping with battle, so that we get a look at life and comradeship in the regimental community, men keeping in touch with home, the display of courage or cowardice, desertion and military justice, and, of course the experience and consequences of combat. Many of the excerpts are both moving and chilling, and incidents are described that were probably common, yet not often mentions, such as the reaction of troops sleeping under fire when one of them gets hit. And we get a better look at the troops’ reaction to real or perceived problems at home that may have arisen due to their their absence and the strains these put on their loyalties..

Winner of the New York Military Affairs Symposium’s Eugene Feit Award for Excellent in Civil War Scholarship, Carmichael’s The War for the Common Soldier, a volume in the UNC Press series "Littlefield History of the Civil War Era”, is an outstanding contribution to the understanding of the life of men in the ranks.

Note: The War for the Common Soldier is also available in several e-editions


StrategyPage reviews are shared with The New York Military Affairs Symposium


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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