Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Peter S. Carmichael's "The War for the Common Soldier"

Peter S. Carmichael is Fluhrer Professor of Civil War Studies at Gettysburg College. He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The War for the Common Soldier: How Men Thought, Fought, and Survived in Civil War Armies, and reported the following:
Thankfully, page 99 intersects with some of the most important themes in my book. The page comes at the end of the chapter that explores how Civil War soldiers navigated the metaphysical confusion of war, when providential frameworks collapsed and men struggled to see divine will in a world immersed in violence. Soldiers quickly discovered that they could not rely on God absolutely and unconditionally if they hoped to survive in the ranks. Flexibility was essential. On both sides, men showed that they understood manhood, courage, emotions, and rules of conduct in highly malleable ways. They were not culturally hardwired by an unthinking code of militarized manliness as some historians have suggested.

Men on both sides turned pragmatic in their faith without surrendering to “modern doubt.” On page 99 I summarize the lives of four men who are showcased in the chapter, reminding the reader that “they all remained faithful and prayed fervently, and at the same time they also became more pragmatic in their reading of the world” as they transformed into veterans. Witnessing the suffering and sacrifices of fellow comrades imparted hard lessons about how to survive in the ranks.

At the end of page 99 I stress the importance of pragmatism to understanding how soldiers thought, and not just what they thought. Much of the existing scholarship gives ideology and identity an all-encompassing explanatory power to answer the important inquiry why men fought. I counter this ideological determinism by arguing that Civil War soldiers prized adaptability in thought and action. Ideas mattered, not so much for their intrinsic value, but for their effectiveness in getting the job done in the field. To survive and achieve military victory, Northern and Southern soldiers needed to shape themselves to the ground conditions of war. As I point out on page 99, the four soldiers in the chapter ---as well as throughout the book---“agreed that the war had upset the rules of life, and volunteers on both sides undoubtedly felt alienated from everything familiar at some point during their military careers.”

Northern and Southern soldiers came to put their trust in the practical knowledge gained in the field, given the difficulties in discerning God’s hand in the maelstrom of war. These four men endured many trials, both physical and philosophical, and still they persevered even as they were consumed by an ontological crisis. The concluding sentence concerning these four men page 99 perfectly captures a dominant theme in The War for the Common Soldier, when I write that “the erratic currents of idealism, even when drained dangerously low by a seemingly purposeless war, never left Northern or Southern soldiers standing on the barren ground of nihilism.”
Learn more about The War for the Common Soldier at Peter S. Carmichael's website.

--Marshal Zeringue