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Courage Under Fire: Profiles in Bravery from the Battlefields of the Civil War
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Courage Under Fire: Profiles in Bravery from the Battlefields of the Civil War

by Wiley Sword

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"If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for . . . my courage does not halt or falter" – Major Sullivan Ballou, 1861, prior to the Battle of Bull Run

In Courage Under Fire, award-winning historian Wiley Sword captures the fervor of a nation at war with itself; a war that pitted brother against brother. Through the immediacy of


"If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for . . . my courage does not halt or falter" – Major Sullivan Ballou, 1861, prior to the Battle of Bull Run

In Courage Under Fire, award-winning historian Wiley Sword captures the fervor of a nation at war with itself; a war that pitted brother against brother. Through the immediacy of diaries and letters written not only on the battlefields and in camps but also on the deathbeds of soldiers from both the North and South, Sword lays bare the complexities and depth of a soldier's mind in coming to grips with life and death – even while his country, and often his family, is mercilessly ripped apart.

From wives and mothers to the highest military figures, all strived toward often worthy but difficult objectives, while seeking to suffer as little as possible. Featured in this compelling study of men and women facing the severest stress of their lives are fascinating stories such as that of Union Lieutenant Colonel Frank Curtiss. He was ordered to take his regiment, the 127th Illinois, in a hopeless charge against the enemy's fortified lines at Atlanta, Ga. on August 3, 1864. Aware that many of his men would die needlessly and for minimal tactical gain, he refused to obey these orders. The moral courage to fight meant also to appropriately assess the risks and weigh the loss in lives of one's soldiers. Confederate General John Bell Hood's decision to sacrifice much of his army at Franklin, Tennessee on November 30th 1864, ranks as one of the saddest events of the war. His aggressive behavior is assessed in terms of both moral and physical courage, providing a revealing insight into the character of one of the war's key commanders. The prospect of death in battle was a fearsome prospect for Lucy Morse, who kept desperate hope her husband, William H. Morse, would survive the fighting. She wrote to him,"I was almost crazy before I heard from you for fear that you had shared the fate of many a brave soldier." Her story and that of the fateful events in their lives provides graphic evidence of the fiber of America's soldiers and their worthy families.

In a revealing portrait of courage and its often bloody consequences, Wiley Sword conveys a vivid picture of bravery under extreme stress, which is fully appropriate in today's world.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Popular historian Sword (Southern Invincibility) offers up much more than a series of sketches of heroic battlefield action in this free-ranging examination of moral and physical courage on both sides in the Civil War. Grounded in deep respect for the inner vision and strength required to exert "moral courage" in battles where hundreds of lives could be lost or saved with a single decision, these brief, fast-moving chapters present snapshots of many characters, primarily officers. Seen in action on the field of battle, their selflessness and physical courage under fire are evident. Sword also offers analyses of important strategic and battlefield decisions by the war's top leaders. Sword praises Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, but has harsh words for Confederate generals P.G.T. Beauregard and Braxton Bragg and especially for Jefferson Davis over their lack of "moral courage" during a time of war. Davis's self-righteousness and hubris, Sword contends, "perhaps contributed the most to the ultimate defeat of the Confederacy." (Nov.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
From the Publisher

“A solid work...reinforce[s] our understanding of a remarkable generation of Americans.” —Civil War News

“Sword writes in clean and straight to the point prose. A worthy read for anyone in a position of leadership, for it lays out the rigors of sending others into harm's way, which is a brand of courage, in itself. Also, it is a must for anyone who has an interest in human nature. For those with a preconceived notion of what they think courage means.” —Civil War Book Review

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
6.77(w) x 9.11(h) x 1.18(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

August 3, 1864, was not proving to be a good day for Frank Curtiss. He was sweating profusely because the Illinois lieutenant colonel faced a big problem. He had been ordered by the senior (brigade) commanding officer, Brigadier General Joseph Andrew Jackson Lightburn, to take his regiment, the 127th Illinois Infantry, and charge the fortified Rebel lines across an open field near Atlanta, Georgia. Curtiss knew what was in store. His skirmishers had already attempted to attack the enemy’s pickets across the same field. They had started off with a yell, aiming at the dusky brown line of improvised earthworks. Halfway across the field, it seemed as if all hell had exploded in their faces. Ten Confederate cannon, firing deadly shotgunlike blasts of canister, had raked the sprinting lines of blue-clad soldiers. Minié balls had zipped about like angry swarms of bees. Seven of fifty men were downed in an instant, and the remainder had scattered in confusion back to the Union lines.

Before the attack Curtiss’s palms were sweaty. Now the oppressive Georgia heat added to the ache in his heart. If he took his men out there again, perhaps not a man would survive. Yet Curtiss carefully considered the situation: Lightburn was waiting impatiently, his brigadier general’s stars glistening on gilded shoulder straps. Obviously the austere and gruff West Virginian saw little merit in Curtiss’s hesitation. He wanted that Rebel skirmish line captured.

Frank Curtiss was no fool. A veteran combat officer with extensive experience, he knew the consequences of making the attack: heavy losses for an insignificant gain. A thousand thoughts raced through his mind. Lightburn was known to be bucking for a second star and division command, especially since his superior, Major General Morgan L. Smith, was ill and on the verge of leaving the army for home. Moreover, Lightburn was aware that the Army of the Tennessee’s new commander, Major General Oliver O. Howard, was personally present, watching for good results. Lightburn thus wanted bold action that might impress his seniors.

Frank Curtiss wanted only to keep his men alive. They deserved better than to have their lives thrown away in a useless frontal assault that could accomplish nothing to compensate for an outright slaughter. From Arkansas Post to Dallas, Georgia, these men had fought valiantly and suffered accordingly. Their lives were precious, more so than the prospect of a new star for old Lightburn—whom the boys said they “hated worse than a Rebel” for his self-serving ways.

Curtiss’s expression turned grim. Common sense opposed Lightburn’s orders, but it equated to a dire choice: his arrest for disobeying orders, or the death of many of his men. Thus the decision was both simple and complex.

In Frank Curtiss’s mind there really was no choice. He refused to make the attack.

Lightburn’s reaction was like that of a stricken grizzly; swiftly Curtiss was placed under arrest, his sword was confiscated, and the distraught officer was sent to the rear to face dismissal from the army.

Lightburn now angrily turned to the next regiment in line, the 55th Illinois Infantry. The result was the same. The captain commanding (the senior officers were casualties) decided he, too, would not make such a forlorn attack. When the third regiment’s commander also hesitated to charge, Lightburn had these officers arrested and was seen galloping off in a huff, apparently damning the ill luck that had brought him command of such independent-minded units.1

Great moral courage was comparatively rare on the tactical battlefield prior to 1864; experience, if not the ability, was wanting. Knowing what was tactically right or wrong was generally a by-product of personal experience, and hence had to be learned. Yet acting upon that same knowledge frequently involved an extraordinary dilemma. At what point was the right to be implemented, and at what cost? The lessons of three years of increasingly vicious warfare had clarified the means and the issues. Those in the ranks knew, as survivors, what their service had taught: what was or wasn’t practical or possible. Often at issue was a myriad of counterpoints, from what was good judgment, to the implementation of selfish motives or bureaucratic initiatives, to a use of common sense. It was a familiar bane of common soldiers and their units’ officers: coping with the perceived bungling of high-ranking commanders. Those who seemed to know the best were those with the most to gain or lose—their lives. Decisions by those not at risk often involved a far different perspective.

“Cannon fodder” was an outmoded concept even in 1861. “Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die” implied a universal theme of compliance amid ignorance. Yet in the mid-nineteenth century the masses were not essentially stupid. With the Industrial Revolution had come an equally fundamental educational revolution. Ordinary people were no longer largely uneducated and thus complaisant amid their relative ignorance. From religious institutions to the military, the implications were enormous. The masses, able to read and write, and stimulated to think by rapid means of communication, were as a maturing apple tree, ready to bear quality fruit where only the yield would be affected by the climate and conditions. Being told what to do now involved a more sophisticated approach—that of rationale. While there were those who relied upon traditional methods to obtain results, they often were less successful than the innovators, the leaders who studied, reasoned, and adapted.

By 1864, the crux of the matter was the evolving war of technology, in which attitudes and traditional concepts were subject to the relative overall wisdom that was applied. Management of the battlefield centered on a new criterion—personnel conservation and efficacy in action. In its most basic meaning, this translated into use of common sense rather than staid, all-but-obsolete textbook concepts. The world was changing. New technology had altered the methodology of war. Thinking had to keep pace. It was a fascinating challenge to those in control—how well could they adapt?

To the men who fought in the trenches during the later stages of the war, the matter of their life or death thus had a new focus; would their lives (being increasingly precious) be truly valued by those in command? Would they be given a fair chance to survive in combat, consistent with the altered, more deadly conditions of modern warfare? Because of the widespread use of more lethal weapons technology, this meant fighting smart.

From Today’s Perspective

In achieving victory in battle, the basic reliance for ages has been on military discipline. As such, the focus has always been on the one essential maxim: “Obey orders.” Yet in a “why” context, is it enough to be told what to do on the basis of rank? Perhaps in ordinary circumstances, yes. But ultimately, if human life is the essential value, are there times when risking one’s life is to be weighed against the viability of the endeavor? Traditionally, superior rank has been given full discretion in such matters, but at what point does a higher consideration have sway? Frank Curtiss thought he must act in refusing an order based upon his knowledge and personal experience; he saw the situation at Atlanta on August 3, 1864 as resulting in a useless sacrifice of life. To refuse Lightburn’s mandate was contrary to the oath he had taken to obey the lawful orders of his superiors, but he viewed his moral courage in doing what was “right” as saving the lives of countless numbers of his men. Was it justified? Or, in reverse perspective, was Lightburn’s tactical ignorance—or perhaps ulterior motive—in ordering the attack defensible under the scrutiny of hindsight? If correct in a technical sense, were his actions in a practical sense justifiable? Even in today’s military, should a subordinate officer be denied the chance to alter the course of action, given explicit orders contrary to the moral ethics of right versus wrong—such as to sacrifice without due gain the very lives of his men? The answers are not easy, even as we examine cause and effect. No explanations or solutions will be satisfactory, but it is a fundamental human quest to seek an understanding of what is ultimate wisdom.

This book, while often focused on the tactical battlefield, examines decision making as a consequence of personal perception and applied moral resolution. Differences in thinking may be based upon extent of knowledge, but ultimately the results sometimes defy conventional rationale (because, essentially, we are not invariably smart enough to correctly perceive and manage all factors large and small). While an analysis of some of the Civil War’s key decisions in forethought and their subsequent consequences is necessarily limited by the passage of time and inherent loss of data, we can in a larger sense stimulate thought, raise internal questions, and inspire deeper reasoning. Indeed, if we are to learn from the past, our understanding must encompass as much of the whole story as is possible—that is, the thinking as well as the doing.

What went through the mind of certain individuals caught up in life-or-death circumstances is generally difficult to determine. However, put into perspective from the historical clues that exist, often a meaningful if subjective analysis is possible. If we are to better understand our lives and the meaning of such, the past hopefully holds clues in its many recorded lessons.

Copyright © 2007 by Wiley Sword. All rights reserved.

Meet the Author

Wiley Sword is the author of various history and Civil War books, including Mountains Touched With Fire and Southern Invincibility. His book Embrace an Angry Wind won the Fletcher Pratt Award, and he has been nominated for various other prizes, including the Pulitzer. He lives in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

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