The Good Men Who Won the War: Army of the Cumberland Veterans and Emancipation Memory
The Good Men Who Won the War: Army of the Cumberland Veterans and Emancipation Memory

The Good Men Who Won the War: Army of the Cumberland Veterans and Emancipation Memory

by Robert E. Hunt Ph.D

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ISBN-13: 9780817357979
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 05/28/2014
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 190
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

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The Good Men Who Won the War

Army of the Cumberland Veterans and Emancipation Memory

By Robert Hunt

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2010 the University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-5797-9


Remembered War; Forgotten Struggle

[We] were all anxious to leave the scenes of warfare and strife and go back to God's country, to home and friends and loved ones; to lay aside the uniform and the sword and take up the implements and avocations of peace.

— Thomas Crofts, from his history of the Third Ohio Cavalry

At various times after 1880 individual authors (or committees) sat down to write the history of a Cumberland army regiment or the story of a soldier's life. When they did so there was no agreed-upon pattern to follow. Although a number of the authors read their compatriots' works (often enough for the purpose of disagreeing about campaign details), no standard was ever set for what a regimental history or military autobiography should contain. The writers composed their studies at different times prompted by various circumstances. As a result, Cumberland narratives are a hodge-podge. Some are richly textured, voluminous discussions of a regiment's or an individual's service, while others are merely sketches.

Fortunately, the more elaborate Cumberland histories create nearly a complete look at the army's war. This completeness does not represent the particular writer's interpretive ambitions so much as the desire to include all the experience that could be recalled or copied from journals and notes. Cumberland narratives are excursive more than systematic or analytical. But from the desire to tell it all, the authors fashioned something of a total picture. In addition to describing combat, the writers discussed camp life, the enlistment process, the virtues of a citizen-soldiery, the politics of secession, and, most important, the shift in the army's strategy from the "rosewater" days of 1861 to the hard war that took hold beginning in early 1862. As part of this, the writers discussed slavery and emancipation, looking at how these elements were woven into the evolution of the war itself. In this respect, the real war got into the books.

As a result, one can read the detailed memoirs and regimental histories as testimony to the Cumberland veterans' willingness to remember emancipation and the larger Civil War. Far from removing or forgetting this memory, the narratives provide a look at the process by which the men came to link the abolition of slavery to the war against the Confederacy. In particular, the memoirs and regimentals provide an important angle on the army's change of temper on this issue, because the stories are with few exceptions written chronologically. Not only did Cumberland authors make emancipation part of their remembered war, they retraced the process by which the soldiers came to support the idea. This chapter will detail this evolution as the narrators wrote it into the army's memory.

Importantly, Cumberland authors ended their tale with the Confederate surrender. If they were inclusive and expansive when describing events from Fort Sumter to Joe Johnston's capitulation, the narrators ever so conveniently ended things in summer 1865. The "problem" with the regimental histories and memoirs is not that they erased the African American presence in the larger war. Rather, it is that the authors, with but a couple of exceptions, chose to disconnect Reconstruction from the story.

Albion Winegar Tourgee, the famous Carpetbagger, illustrates why. An officer in the 105th Ohio, Tourgee had been part of the Army of the Cumberland until injury forced his resignation and return home in 1863. Years later he was enlisted to write The Story of a Thousand, the unit history of his regiment, which he completed in 1896. The book is of a piece with its fellow regimentals, which is to say that it is unlike Tourgee's other writings. In particular, it is unlike A Fool's Errand, a work in which the Ohioan produced a fascinating analysis of why the North could not reorder the South after the war. As will be discussed in this chapter, Tourgee argued forcefully and in detail that Reconstruction was a failure. Given such failure, what Cumberland narrators confronted at the turn of the century was not the need to rewrite the war but the necessity to be crafty about describing the peace. After all, the army's authors insisted that they had won an enduring victory. Such a triumph would have to be found elsewhere than in the Reconstruction that Tourgee portrayed as a political and ideological disaster.

The Unprovoked and Dastardly Attack

When Cumberland regimental historians sat down to write the history of their respective units, most began with the mobilizing of the men. At other points in their narrative authors provided context by describing the long sectional controversy of the antebellum period and the country's sad political collapse, but they began with recruitment. Of course, mobilization was an obvious place to begin a regimental history, but the authors were making a larger point. They intended their readers to find reassurance in what the authors defined as the country's military tradition of the citizen-soldier.

By invoking this tradition Cumberland authors blended accuracy with myth. On the one hand, by beginning the story with mobilization the authors correctly referenced the fact that the sectional debate and even secession itself had been confusing and divisive. The politics of Southern extremism did not galvanize the North for action so much as stir up doubt, partisanship, and anxiety. It took Fort Sumter to change this. The unprovoked and dastardly attack ended the complicated, tortuous internal debate in the North, replacing it with a collective outrage over the assault on the flag. Charles C. Briant made the point in his 1891 history of the Sixth Indiana. When the news of the attack was received in Indianapolis, he noted, "the loyal people of the United States abandoned the field of argument, and ceased to discuss measures and plans for the peaceable restoration of the national authority." Loyal Indianans, he insisted, "accepted the issue of war," with a "singular unanimity and determination."

Briant rightly captured the spirit of the moment. Sumter crystallized the situation. For a few months, resolution and singleness of purpose replaced divisiveness and partisanship. The Indianan wrote into the collective historical record what James McPherson describes as a rage militaire that followed Sumter. Intense, spontaneous, emotional outrage quickly outran political and ideological division, producing a primal urge to defend a national community under attack. Indeed, the Charleston incident spawned what became four separate military mobilizations — two each in 1861 and 1862, respectively. Furthermore, anger at the initial attack welded the enlistees into the army with a sense of determination strong enough to endure years of dramatic setbacks along with several changes in mission and commanders. Northerners who volunteered to fight or who supported the soldiery from the homefront found in Charleston harbor an event and symbol that sustained them through the worst war in the country's history. By beginning with the process of unit mobilization, Cumberland authors referenced this emotional and ideological breakpoint, and wrote it into their army's collective memory.

But then the myth entered. If Cumberland authors correctly observed that Sumter marked a new departure for the North, they also used their discussion of mobilization to invoke the hallowed tradition of the American citizen-soldier. The writers described regimental recruiting using the sacred images of the Revolution. Their description recalled 1775 and so interwove the dramatic events of 1861 and 1862 with the legend of the country's origins.

Cumberland authors referenced this tradition by combining two themes. They insisted, first, that military reverses only made a free people more determined, and, second, that voluntarism and the citizen-soldier were the proper foundations of an American army. Robert Kimberly and Ephraim Holloway of the Forty-first Ohio wrote about the men who signed up in late summer 1861. The defeat of Bull Run had struck their northern Ohio homeland with "a stunning shock." Among the residents, "incredulity and consternation were the contending emotions." However, the authors continued, the people "roused themselves" to "face the situation." It was now evident that the war would not be a "brief excursion," but would require the entire "military strength" of the "loyal States." John Beach of the Fortieth Ohio agreed. Writing in 1884, he recalled that Bull Run had "shattered the hopes of the North that a campaign of sixty days would end the war." The "extent and serious character of the undertaking" now became apparent to "the Northern mind."

This serious undertaking demanded a sober response from the citizenry. Cumberland narrators argued insistently that the increasingly demanding situation brought out the North's best: the ordinary men who represented the virtuous productivity of the Midwest. With great pride David Bittle Floyd of the Seventy-fifth Indiana observed that the regiment's recruits left "comfortable homes and profitable professions, trades, and lines of business to volunteer their services to country and flag." On a more personal level, Spillard Horrall of the Forty-second Indiana stated that when he joined up he left his wife without a dollar. Her response was "'God bless you, and protect you!'" Judson Bishop of the Second Minnesota openly wondered "that so many could and would divest themselves of all impending business, social and family obligations and restraints, and commit themselves for three years to the then unknown hardships and perils of a soldier's life."

This was traditional citizen-soldier imagery at its finest. From the days of the Revolution it had been important for Americans to believe that the country's military strength came from its citizenry, not a professional army, and that these amateur civilians-in-arms were made powerful not by some militaristic ethos but by their willingness to sacrifice property and home life for the country's cause. George Morris certainly emphasized the idea. There was "nothing of the soldier" in the Eighty-first Indiana's recruits, this regimental historian insisted. Indeed, they made "all sorts of blunders and funny mistakes." Nonetheless, these were "sturdy, resolute boys," who were "the best material for an American volunteer regiment." Although they were "raw, undisciplined country boys," they were "animated by a sincere love of country, and a desire to do their whole duty."

In such opening passages Cumberland narrators focused attention on the character of the men rather than the character of the war. In grounding their description in the country's military tradition, they opened the master narrative by highlighting the moral qualities of the volunteers rather than the causes and consequences of the fight. As will be discussed in chapter 2, the Cumberland regimental historians and memoir writers had certain self-serving reasons to do this, but the larger effect and intent of such descriptions was to ground the origin and prosecution of the North's war on the solid foundation of the nation's sacred past. By focusing the lens on the recruits, the writers reaffirmed what most people considered to be basic American principles, sliding past the fact that the war had happened because the republic as an institution had collapsed. James Buchanan, the former president, was hardly alone in wondering how a partisan political democracy based on electoral consent could be saved by coercive war. As the old Jacksonian Democrat observed in his last message to Congress, secession marked the death of the Union whatever the constitutional technicalities of South Carolina's act. In addition, when the war of coercion came to include emancipation, it connected the cause of the nation with what had been to that point the radical abolitionism of the John Brown variety. Northern soldiers did not save the Union, they conquered the Confederacy and stirred emancipation into the ashes.

As the Cumberland narrators worked their way through the story of their war, they would explain this destruction, conquest, and liberation. But not at the beginning of the tale. Rather, they saw it as more important to argue that the men "came not from the rabble," to use Frederick Keil's phrasing. For this historian of the Thirty-fifth Ohio, the critical point was that the recruits were not "the lawless; but were substantial men in every respect."

In this way Cumberland writers covered over their revolutionary war. Although they would describe the invasion of the Confederate South in their narratives, along with the vast reordering that attended it, the authors began the story with the country's mythic past. Cumberland soldiers were the Minutemen reborn. The vital memory was that the boys of '61 and '62 had mimicked the old yeomen with their Kentucky rifles on the mantle. Similar to the old farmer and artisan militia, the Cumberlanders had come "from the stores and counting rooms, from the colleges and country school houses, from village, town and city, from shop and farm." They had willingly abandoned "every prospect of future comfort for the hardships, danger and death that awaited them in their new lives as soldiers."

Invading an Enemy's Country

Having described the recruits of '61 and '62 as worthy inheritors of America's military tradition, Cumberland authors now took up the prosecution of the war. When they did so they had to characterize their Confederate enemy and describe the process by which they had destroyed him. Of course, the writers happily discussed battle and campaign in this regard at length, glowing with pride particularly about Snodgrass Hill and Missionary Ridge. However, the good Cumberland men had won the war by invading and dismantling the South, not simply by fighting the soldiers in butternut. In their various regimental histories and memoirs, writers described this process of invasion, reproducing in reflection and anecdote the particulars of how the soldiery became an army of destruction and liberation.

In composing these descriptions, the authors recorded a memory with two dimensions. First, the narrators repeated the highly charged characterizations of the South that had been the staple of the North's ideological war during the antebellum period. In the heat of Fort Sumter and its aftermath, the recruits had to explain to themselves as well as others what sort of people could commit such treachery and why good Northern men had to respond to it. Years later, regimental authors and autobiographers restated these interpretations. In the process, they wrote into their historical record their sneering evaluation of the slave system that, in their eyes, had made the Old South corrupt. Second, the writers noted how they and their units had come to prosecute an actively emancipationist war. During the conflict, this had not been an easy transition. According to Chandra Manning, when the fight began the soldiers were more than ready to cite the peculiar institution as the explanation for Confederate corruption and treason, and this feeling helped lead them to support the conversion to emancipation. Yet, as Manning also discusses, the process had its complexities. Writing about it all years later, many regimental historians recorded the moment of conversion in this regard, and were candid and detailed about the process.

* * *

According to Cumberland authors, Confederates did not simply attack a fort in April 1861. Rather, the assault revealed the depth and extent of the Old South's corruption. Whatever reunionist sympathies were percolating through American society at the turn of the twentieth century, Cumberland narrators wanted it understood that during the 1860s they had fought a just and necessary war against a perfidious enemy. Although Cumberlanders exercised a certain limited forgiveness toward uniformed Confederate soldiers, as will be discussed in chapter 3, they left no one in doubt about their view of Southern treason and its roots.

In general, Cumberland authors repeated in their histories and memoirs the sectionalist attitudes that had been developed during the 1840s and 1850s. As Susan-Mary Grant observes, antebellum Northerners had created a sense of particular nationhood and national destiny by turning the South into an "other." Northerners based this contrast on the ideals of free labor, an ideology that, according to Grant, appealed to a broad spectrum of Northerners, although the Republican party would attempt to make it their exclusive partisan property. Decades later, Army of the Cumberland veterans employed free-labor imagery to explain to their readers why the war against the South had to be fought.

In his regimental history of the Fifty-ninth Illinois, George Washington Herr created one of the most elaborate and nuanced of these characterizations of a debased South. Though written in 1890 at a time when the agenda of sectional reconciliation was presumably sweeping all before it, Herr laid the responsibility for the Civil War at the door of a Southern "chivalry" so blinded by its belligerence and arrogance that it could never fathom either the North's resolve or the integrity and strength of Northern society. Herr blended this ideological smugness, in turn, with an often savvy and plausible analysis of the politics of breakdown.


Excerpted from The Good Men Who Won the War by Robert Hunt. Copyright © 2010 the University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Prelude: The Army of the Cumberland's War, 1861–1865,
1. Remembered War; Forgotten Struggle,
2. Victory in "God's Country",
3. Incorporating Friends and Enemies,
4. Legacies,
Appendix: Cumberland Regimental Histories and Personal Memoirs Reviewed for This Study,

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