The Civil War a family approach


There must be as many ways to approach the Civil War as there are days in the year.

There is the major-event approach, used by Burke Davis in his "Sherman's March" and by the producers of the new movie "Gettysburg." There is the straight biographical approach -- used in the several biographies recently published about Nathan Bedford Forrest, the undisputed military genius of the war. There is the combined biographical approach, of which Gene Smith's "Lee and Grant" is a prime example. In "The Negro's Civil War," James McPherson uses what may be called the ethnic or multicultural approach.

The exact term for Reid Mitchell's approach in "The Vacant Chair" has yet to be named. But the author, a professor of history at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, skillfully examines family and gender mores of the mid-19th century to tell the reader what life was like for Union soldiers. He tries to show what prompted them to answer Lincoln's call for volunteers in 1861, and what motivated more than half of them to re-enlist in 1864 after experiencing more than three years of hardship and warfare.

The answer, Dr. Mitchell asserts, lies in the family and community relationships of the Union soldiers. Time and again, he cites examples of how Union soldiers were asked to support the North's war efforts by comparing loyalty to country and the president to loyalty to their parents and families.

Consider this passage about Ezra Mundy Hunt, a pro-Union writer of the era:

"[Hunt] summarized the sectional conflict and the subsequent rebellion as a family tragedy. 'If a feud should occur in a family and two out of six children should rebel against parental authority, while the other four are disposed to think their father and mother about as good caretakers as they could expect under any change, it would clearly be part of the wisdom in the dutiful children to adhere to the old folks, rather than break up the family and see what could come out of the ruin.' "

Other examples abound:

* "Defending [the Union] was in many ways a familial duty, something that a son owed the generations before him."

* "Perhaps the best way to understand small-unit cohesion [in the Union army] is to think of the company as a substitute family."

* "Leaving the army meant leaving behind men with whom one had served, suffered and risked one's life. The affections of this substitute family competed with the claims of the family a soldier had left at home."

Dr. Mitchell reminds the reader that the term "infantry" comes from the Latin for child, which may explain why abolitionist Union officer Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson could say with a clear conscience of the black troops he commanded, "Philoprogenitiveness is an important organ for an officer of colored troops; and I happen to be well provided with it."

Philoprogenitiveness, Dr. Mitchell explains, is love of one's offspring. It no doubt took much restraint on his part not to suggest that Higginson should have been flogged publicly for using it, as much for the ponderousness of the word as for the racist and paternalistic attitude he displayed.

The book is not without its humorous passages, despite its serious subject. It seems that soldiers during the war, bereft of female companionship, attempted to create some. They held balls in which drummer boys dressed up as women. Some of the boys so dressed "look[ed] almost good enough to lay with," one obviously sex-starved trooper wrote home to his wife.

On one occasion soldiers let an unsuspecting major think that a drummer in drag was really a woman. The major wooed the drummer all night, and only discovered his real gender when the drummer boy lifted up his skirt, revealed his private parts and asked the major "How he liked the looks."

Dr. Mitchell's superb writing skills are evident. From the opening of the first chapter, he sweeps the reader along with narrative skills commonly found in novelists, not history professors.

Dr. Mitchell had written one prior book, a comparison of Union and Confederate fighting men called "Civil War Soldiers," published by Viking Press in 1988. Civil War buffs may not have heard of Dr. Mitchell, but once they read "The Vacant;Chair" they may well recognize the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

Mr. Kane is a reporter for the Metro department of The Sun with a long-standing interest in the Civil War.


Title: "The Vacant Chair"

Author: Reid Mitchell

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Length, price: 201 pages, $25

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