Friday, March 28, 2008

ON THIS DAY: Friday, March 28, 2008

“Civilians in Uniform”

Along the Tennessee River a few miles north of the Tennessee-Mississippi line, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant is struggling with one of the realities of the Civil War: most of the Union armies are filled, not with professional soldiers, but civilians in uniform.

What this meant, according to the late historian Bruce Catton, was that discipline in volunteer units could never rise to the level of the regular army. Men followed officers they respected, not because their leaders wore shoulder straps. A prominent German general said the American Civil War did not merit study because (as Catton put it) “it had been fought by armed mobs.” Some West Pointers won respect and succeeded as leaders; some did not, and failed, despite their professional training. They simply couldn’t adjust to the more relaxed discipline required to lead volunteers.

On the other hand, many volunteer officers had no prior military training, but these lawyers, businessmen, and professors became respected leaders if they did two things: (1) were fearless in battle, and (2) treated their men fairly. And fraternization between officers and their men was common. After all, they often came from the same town.

While Grant waits at Savannah to move against the Confederates camped at Corinth, Mississippi, he spends much of today trying to clamp down on unauthorized furloughs. A steady stream of soldiers has been traveling down the river on leaves granted by their company officers. Grant’s superior, Major General Halleck in St. Louis, has gotten on Grant’s case, and Grant feebly protests—in two separate letters today—that he is doing the best he can.

To Halleck he writes:

“This army is mostly new to me and it is impossible that I should correct all irregularities, or know of them, at once, especially as I receive such feeble support from many of the officers. I find great difficulty in getting my orders disseminated though all in my power has been done to insure it.”

He then writes Gen. Charles F. Smith, in charge at Pittsburg Landing: “A boat just down has men aboard from seven or eight different regiments, passed and furloughed without proper authority, leading to the arrest of one brig. gen., four colonels, and two captains. Please require some proper person to visit every boat leaving Pittsburg [Landing] and examine all passes and when improperly given, arrest the parties giving them, and charges to be preferred.”

Sometimes it seems as if a battle would be a welcome relief.

As Catton points out, however, what happened in the Civil War is what has happened in most wars fought by Americans: most of the fighting was done by men (and, more recently, women) who mostly come from civilian life and return to it after the conflict is over. The American soldier “never really becomes very military; for better or worse, he remains to the end a citizen in arms,” said Catton.

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