During the Vietnam War era the war protesters attacked the soldiers fighting in that war, lumping the solider in the same category with the politicians who voted for the military action. Since this time, the American public has been focused on supporting the troops in an unwavering fashion, contrasting the Vietnam era when both the politics of the war and the soldiers fighting it were attacked. During the first Gulf War that lasted from 1990-1991 and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American public rushed to display their yellow ribbons of support for the soldiers. These symbols of support were placed on personal and commercial vehicles, businesses, and schools. Generally, the soldiers do not get asked about their thoughts on the conflict they are fighting in, but rather the public holds them up and apart from the politics of war. On the contrary, this was not the case during the Civil War. The war itself was personal and impacted the population directly. Through her book, What this Cruel War was Over, Chandra Manning examines what the soldiers, on both sides of the war, thought about the connection between slavery and the war (4).
From the beginning, Manning is clear about her intentions with this book. As she states in the introduction, “It is not about soldiers’ motivations for enlisting, for individuals chose to do that for widely varied reasons” (4). She is tackling this specific issue of what the soldiers’ thought about slavery and its connection to the Civil War through three main categories. First, the vast majority of Confederate soldiers did not personally own slaves, but yet they fought fiercely for the institution of slavery. Second, the Northern soldiers did not easily fall into the category of abolitionist. The black Union soldiers formed the third distinct category, but she does not show them going through the same paradigm shift as the white soldiers. The black Union soldiers first had to fight to be in the army and then again against the Confederacy. Illustrating this she notes, “black men who joined the Union ranks harbored few delusions about the United States’ long and complicated relationship to slavery or about the white Northerners’ attitudes toward blacks” (5). By making clear distinctions between the soldiers, Manning adeptly constructs three clear, ideological conversations throughout this book.
Equally important, Manning acknowledges the conversation she is entering and that it has been ongoing for 150 years, since the end of the Civil War. As part of this conversation Manning recognizes the other books about the soldiers of the Civil War. There are two main dissimilarities Manning points out between her book and the other works she references. The organizational structure she imposes on What This Cruel War Was Over is what sets this book apart from the others. First, the other books that have sought to gain insight on the soldiers who fought in the Civil War organized the books in ways other than chronological order (i.e. thematically). Conversely, Manning specifically arranges What This Cruel War Was Over to show a linear progression of time. She wanted to suss out if the soldiers’ opinions changed as the war progressed. Secondly, Manning is only interested in the soldiers as men of their time. She does not wish to impose modern morals on these men, but rather listen to them as they expressed themselves, in their own words.
As a result, I felt the soldiers guiding me through the Civil War. They were not the mere image of a soldier we have come to know through our modern wars, who are apolitical, but ultra patriotic. Moreover, for the modern reader to understand the Confederate soldier Manning asserts:
There is no way to understand the Civil War from a Confederate perspective–no way to understand why the war began or why it lasted so long—without understanding why white nonslaveholding men would believe that the preservation of slavery justified a fight. (32)
Manning seems to advocate for these soldiers’ right to possess strong political opinions, although she is not advocating a particular stance.
Moreover, Manning states, in her introduction, that she will resist the urge to project modern beliefs onto the Civil War soldiers in her book (7). As a reader it was difficult to read the letters from the white Union soldiers changing their mind, not only about the black Union soldiers, but also the people who were enslaved in the South. Prior to the Civil War, people in the Northern abolitionist movement were anti-slavery, but not necessarily pro-civil rights for African Americans. However, Manning clearly illustrates how these soldiers had a change in their thinking over the course of the war. She points to the Union soldiers’ interactions with the former slaves having biggest impact on the changing mind of the Union soldier (192). The difficulty for me was not the prose, but the sentiment, mainly from the Union soldiers both white and black. It was clear through their letters that the white soldiers had a change in their thinking and the black Union soldiers were expectant that after the war they would gain full rights and privileges of citizenship after the war.
To be sure, when reading the reviews of this book I was struck that each of them noted how Manning does not shy away from debunking popular myths surrounding the soldiers of the Civil War. However, in Elizabeth Morris’ review, she seemed more shocked by the racist views of the soldiers than by their changing minds throughout the war (81). The review written by Amy Murrell Taylor tapped into my overall reaction to Manning’s book when she wrote:
Perhaps it is instead the signal contribution of this important book that we are left to rethink our common assumptions and wonder anew how a war that did not just promise, but actually enacted, so much change could later give way to the ultimate backsliding as Reconstruction’s end. (1076)
It is exactly that sentiment I took away from the book and as a non-historian why I found value in understanding history.
In conclusion, I think Manning’s book offers an important contribution to the conversation about the Civil War soldier. Similar to the Antebellum period, people are once again isolated from other people whose opinions are different from their own, or who are from a different racial or ethnic group. Although, this time it is a willful isolation and it is having devastating impacts on our social and political landscape. As we study the Civil War it is paramount that we do not impose our modern idea that soldiers are apart from the politics of war. If we can recognize that soldiers during a time of war can change their minds’ through interacting with former slaves, then surely we could more easily find common ground with our countrymen during a time of peace.
Manning, Chandra. What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War. 1st Vintage Civil War Library ed. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, 2008.
Morris, Elizabeth. “What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, And The Civil War.” Library Journal 132.5 (2007): 81.
Taylor, Amy Murrell. “What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, And The Civil War.” Journal Of Southern History 75.4 (2009): 1074-1076.