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A soldier's perspective on the civil war
This paper was originally written for an American History class I took at Western Michigan University. Now that it has been graded I have decided to share it with the world!
The American Civil war was fought between the Federalist, abolitionist Northern States, and the states-rights South. The Civil war took place after a decade long build of of tensions (though the tensions were inherently built into the system from the beginning) between the southern states, who wanted to extend slavery into new states to keep congress balanced between Slave and free states. The northern abolitionists wanted slavery to either be barred from new states or for slavery to be determined by vote (and since more settlers immigrated west fromt he North, this would work to their advantage anyway.)
Things started coming to a head with the drawn out fight over Kansas between the two sides. Tensions built and after the divisive election of avowed abolitionist Abraham Lincoln states began to secede with South Carolina leading the way. Though Lincoln had no plans to abolish slavery when he took office (and said as much) the south did not believe him and that is why they seceded.
Throughout the war, the US government never considered the CSA to be a country, but citizens in rebellion against the government. This was the legal fiction Lincoln used to justify the use of force against the seceding southern states.
The war lasted over 4 years and claimed the lives of over 600,000 Americans, it was the bloodiest war that America has ever fought. It also destroyed the economic infrastructure of the entire south, especially as a result of Sherman's march to the sea where Union troops purposefully destroyed southern crops, railroads and other important economic infrastructure.
The Diary of a Michigan soldier
The American civil war was an experience shared by all Americans in some way. However, none were more directly affected than the soldiers themselves. This is especially evident when reading the journal kept by Michigan native and Union soldier Hamlin Alexander Coe. Coe’s diary was a revealing look into the life of a soldier as he detailed the hardship of military life and the nature of combat. Coe’s diary reveals the hardship of life on campaign, as well as his mixed feelings towards combat.
On numerous occasions Coe details the hardships of military life. He talks about the relentless marches and sheer exhaustion, both from hard work and lack of sleep. He mentions the exhausting nature of military life many times, on March 22,1863 Coe says “Many of the boys sank down upon the floor (unable to support themselves any longer) from exhaustion and hunger.” (177). On May 18 1864, over a year later Coe says “ I kept up but I am the tiredest man that ever lived” (182) and soon after that on July 20, 1864 Coe mentions exhaustion again when he says “We worked all night, and a tireder and lamer set of men I never saw” (182). On all three occasions Coe speaks as if this is not just the fatigue of a hard days work, but crippling exhaustion which causes him and his fellow soldiers to actually fall to the ground helplessly, their bodies having been pushed to the limit.
Unfortunately, exhaustion was but one hardship of this soldier’s life. Coe reveals details which point to just how unhealthy military life can be. He talks about the living conditions in the various “camps” he stayed in and helped pitch throughout the war. Coe discusses sleeping conditions when he mentions “We have pitched tents and carried straw about two hundred rods for our beds. I shall sleep well tonight.” (175). The soldiers did not have adequate bedding, which would surely lead to soreness and bad sleep, furthering their exhaustion. Coe also talks about the hard labor that military life imposed on a Civil war soldier when he says “They would cut down a tree and carry it bodily to the works, and the next moment the bank of earth would complete the work” (181). Coe is describing the raising of earthworks to resist enemy action, though his description is simple, the amount of pure human muscle power which must have been employed to move so many trees and so much earth is a testament to both the power of teamwork and the hardship of military life. Hard labor mixed with little sleep and unhealthy living conditions usually results in sickness, as was the case for Coe, who told of his sickness on December 5 of 1862 “I was taken with a severe chill. A high fever followed, and from that time to the present date I have been perfectly insane. Upon inquiring into my case, I find I have been having the pneumonia and typhoid fever” (175). The exhaustion, outdoor living, and hard labor of military life caused this soldier to become very sick.
Coe seems to have mixed feelings on combat itself. In some instances, he seems to glorify combat, to be excited about the prospect of taking part in it actually. At other times Coe is taken aback by the horror of the battlefield. There are many times when Coe mentions or references combat in a positive light. On the day of his capture, March 5, 1863, Coe says “We met the Rebs again” (177). His casualness in mentioning the experience of combat reveals something about the way he viewed it; namely that combat was an expected event and not something that he particularly feared. On May 13, 1864, during a battle Coe writes, “The boys about me are talking upon many subjects, and invariably they are making light of the strife before us, and I never saw the boys cooler or more steady” (181). Not only was Coe writing in his journal during a battle, but the men around him were casually talking and waiting to be called on to fight. Coe also sees at least some glory in combat, or at least some glory to be had for the men-at-arms around him. During another battle on July 20, 1864 he writes, “This is another day to be long remembered by the heroes of the day…” (182). Though calling soldiers “heroes” has always been a common moniker, Coe knew these men personally and his words imply that there is something just and good in what these men are doing.
Despite combat being a common experience, and in spite of combat being the venue of heroes in Coe’s journal; he also clearly has a more balanced outlook on it than the above comments might imply. On May 15, 1864 Coe writes “Today we were led into the strife, and I hope I can forget the events of the day.” Clearly, something, or some things happened to him that day in combat that he would rather forget. On July 20, 1864, a couple months later, Coe is describing the Battle of Peachtree Creek and he concludes his description by saying “It is a sickening and horrid sight such as I never wish to see again, though tomorrow may renew the strife…” (182). Here, near the end of the war, Coe finds the courage to attempt to put into words his deepest feelings about what combat really means for the average soldier.
Coe’s experience in the American civil war can hardly have been atypical. His journal reveals the hardship of military life for this soldier as he details the lack of sleep, the hard manual labor and the resulting exhaustion and illness that followed these aspects of life on campaign. His journal also reveals mixed feelings about combat, combat is what he, as a soldier expects, and so it engenders a certain excitement, and also a certain bored indifference. He also glorifies combat, or at least those brave enough to face it as “heroes” revealing a certain pride in being a participant. Coe does not fail to recognize the true horror of what surrounds him however and freely admits that he wishes to forget the experience of combat. Hamlin Alexander Coe’s civil war experience was one of hardship and endurance; and his views on the experience of combat were mixed.
Markman, Marsha Carow., Jonathan Boe, and Susan Corey. "25." The American Journey, Volume 1: United States History through Letters and Diaries. 2nd ed. St. James, NY: Brandywine, 2003. 174-84. Print.