Living Hell: The Dark Side of the Civil War

Living Hell: The Dark Side of the Civil War

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by Michael C. C. Adams

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Many Americans, argues Michael C. C. Adams, tend to think of the Civil War as more glorious, less awful, than the reality. Millions of tourists flock to battlefields each year as vacation destinations, their perceptions of the war often shaped by reenactors who work hard for verisimilitude but who cannot ultimately simulate mutilation, madness, chronic disease,

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Many Americans, argues Michael C. C. Adams, tend to think of the Civil War as more glorious, less awful, than the reality. Millions of tourists flock to battlefields each year as vacation destinations, their perceptions of the war often shaped by reenactors who work hard for verisimilitude but who cannot ultimately simulate mutilation, madness, chronic disease, advanced physical decay. In Living Hell, Adams tries a different tack, clustering the voices of myriad actual participants on the firing line or in the hospital ward to create a virtual historical reenactment.

Perhaps because the United States has not seen conventional war on its own soil since 1865, the collective memory of its horror has faded, so that we have sanitized and romanticized even the experience of the Civil War. Neither film nor reenactment can fully capture the hard truth of the four-year conflict. Living Hell presents a stark portrait of the human costs of the Civil War and gives readers a more accurate appreciation of its profound and lasting consequences.

Adams examines the sharp contrast between the expectations of recruits versus the realities of communal living, the enormous problems of dirt and exposure, poor diet, malnutrition, and disease. He describes the slaughter produced by close-order combat, the difficulties of cleaning up the battlefields—where tens of thousands of dead and wounded often lay in an area of only a few square miles—and the resulting psychological damage survivors experienced.

Drawing extensively on letters and memoirs of individual soldiers, Adams assembles vivid accounts of the distress Confederate and Union soldiers faced daily: sickness, exhaustion, hunger, devastating injuries, and makeshift hospitals where saws were often the medical instrument of choice.

Inverting Robert E. Lee’s famous line about war, Adams suggests that too many Americans become fond of war out of ignorance of its terrors. Providing a powerful counterpoint to Civil War glorification, Living Hell echoes William Tecumseh Sherman’s comment that war is cruelty and cannot be refined.

Praise for Our Masters the Rebels: A Speculation on Union Military Failure in the East, 1861–1865

"This excellent and provocative work concludes with a chapter suggesting how the image of Southern military superiority endured in spite of defeat."— Civil War History

"Adams's imaginative connections between culture and combat provide a forceful reminder that Civil War military history belongs not in an encapsulated realm, with its own categories and arcane language, but at the center of the study of the intellectual, social, and psychological currents that prevailed in the mid-nineteenth century."— Journal of American History

Praise for The Best War Ever: America and World War II

"Adams has a real gift for efficiently explaining complex historical problems."— Reviews in American History

"Not only is this mythologizing bad history, says Adams, it is dangerous as well. Surrounding the war with an aura of nostalgia both fosters the delusion that war can cure our social ills and makes us strong again, and weakens confidence in our ability to act effectively in our own time."— Journal of Military History

Johns Hopkins University Press

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Editorial Reviews

Register of the Kentucky Historical Society
Most valuable to students and general readers who have not given World War II serious study but who are interested in achieving a better understanding of America's experience in what Dwight D. Eisenhower called 'the Great Crusade.'

Shelf Awareness

Provides a vital gut-wrenching counterpoint to the Civil War's glamorization in America's collective memory, a perspective as important to understanding the war as any political history or general's biography. Living Hell will appeal to lovers of military history while being accessible enough for general readers. Those with the fortitude to endure its darkest moments will find it fascinating.

Civil War Monitor - Ian Isherwood

In Adams’ hands, the Civil War’s legacy is unmitigated personal horror, societal suffering, and political factionalism... Living Hell engagingly opens up the 'dark side' of the Civil War to comparative scrutiny with other modern wars.

History Book Club - William C. Davis

This powerful counterpoint to Civil War glorification paints a stark portrait of the true brutality of the conflict... Living Hell is a moving, often graphic, exploration of what the war did to men’s bodies and minds.

Midwest Book Review

Any who would truly understand the daily trials of the Civil War must have this book!

New York Review of Books - James McPherson

This book has made an important contribution to Civil War studies by reminding us graphically of the war’s dark side.

The Past in Review - David Lee Poremba

This book is a well researched, well written look down the rabbit hole of the Civil War as it was, not how we have come to imagine and glorify it.

Civil War Book Review - Thomas E. Rodgers

Civil War scholars will find the horrrors recounted [in this book] amplified as they evoke memories of gory and macabre passages they have read in the past.

History Buffs

This was a very powerful book, chronicling the horrors of the Civil War. The author goes into great depth regarding not only the war itself, but on the causes and the aftermath.

The Journal of America's Military Past - Roger Cunningham

[Adams] writes well, and he has done an impressive job of finding vivid accounts in the letters and memoirs of scores of soldiers and civilians from both sides... Civil War buffs will surely want to buy this book.

History - John G. Selby

In his short but tightly organized and strongly argued book, Adams guides his readers to reconsider some cherished beliefs about this long-ago war... Michael Adams has provided a sober reminder of the real costs of this war. This book should be on the shelves of all students and teachers of the Civil War, to be reached for every time one is tempted to call the worst war in American history grand and glorious.

Seminary Ridge Review - Leonard Hummel

Living Hell is a very lucid text by senior American Civil War historian who can look back on not only this war but also on its vast literature in order to highlight that which remains dark and disturbing. His work is a very readable reminder about the hardship and suffering involved in such conflict—and of the many kinds of costs borne both by those directly involved in that conflict and also by all.

Michigan War Studies Review - William J. Astore

A compelling and salutary reminder of the frightful miseries of war. All students of the Civil War and military history in general should contemplate the lessons of war's terrors revealed in this powerful and uncompromising book.

Library Journal
★ 08/01/2014
Adams (Echoes of War) eschews the celebratory patinas of Civil War memorials to reveal the extremely dark sides of the war. Using soldiers' accounts, the author describes the misery, gore, and futility—"the real war"—that poet Walt Whitman omitted in his works. Adams describes it all: the disease and desperation that led soldiers to have mental and physical breakdowns, the life-altering injuries and post-traumatic stress disorders suffered by those on the front lines, the ravages and rapes of civilians by invading and retreating armies, and much more. Insisting that we have glorified the war too much and, thus, betrayed history, Adams aims to right the course with his honesty. He also ponders the questions of how and why we have come to adore the Civil War and have, as a result, minimized its terrible truths. VERDICT This essential book gives soldiers their due and presents the realities of war in a way few have dared. Ideal for anyone interested in military history.—Randall M. Miller, St. Joseph's Univ., Philadelphia

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Product Details

Johns Hopkins University Press
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Product dimensions:
2.00(w) x 3.00(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

Peter S. Carmichael

Michael C. C. Adams sees the Civil War for what it was, and not how we like to imagine it.... Living Hell brilliantly recovers the terrified voices of men who were emotionally torn and twisted by combat. This is a compelling and important book that forces us to think deeply about how we "celebrate’ the heroism of Billy Yank and Johnny Reb.

D. Scott Hartwig

We often wrap the American Civil War in a romantic veneer. In Living Hell, Michael C. C. Adams strips away the facade to provide a necessary and compelling dose of reality about the war as it was seen and experienced by those who lived it. This is not another story of battles and campaigns. It is instead a broad tapestry that takes the reader to many dark corners of the war which are often left unconsidered.

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Living Hell: The Dark Side of the Civil War 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. The author certainly painted a picture that "war is hell" and how we shouldn't necessarily celebrate the carnage and destruction it brings. I do wish there were photos included within the book but the author did explain why they were not.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I already knew about the horrors of this Victorian age, in particular that war, the Civil War. However, this book really brought it home. It is a very finely crafted piece of authorship, highly entertaining in a macabre way. It is horrifying. The best book I've read in years.
bifmozart65 More than 1 year ago
the real civil war. the feeling of it in daily American life in 1860's. includes the negatives: effects on civilian life, the rotting gore of dead & dying post battles. the medical care post battles. the desolation of so many farms. the struggling families of the 1860's receiving soldier death notices.