Web Faces of War





The Civil War examined on the micro level

By Gary Rawlins
Licensed Gettysburg Battlefield Guide
October 18, 2004

Books on the Civil War keep coming. The subject seems inexhaustible. The literature on the war expands year after year as professional and amateur historians add their voices to the chorus of experts.  Augmenting the source material with new knowledge or a fresh perspective gets harder for the scholar to do. The cognoscenti puzzle over what to read next?

Ron Coddington's Faces of the Civil War is a cure for indecision.

Lean and loaded with pictures, the book beckons the buff to pick it up. The photographs are from Coddington's collection of Civil War portraits. Calledcartes de viste, the French innovation became popular in the United States in the years before the war. Roughly the size of a baseball trading card, thecarte de viste could be had at a cost of $1 for 25. Although photography was barely 20 years old at the time, technical advances in the art -- primarily a process that yielded inexpensive paper prints -- made it possible for ordinary Americans to sit for acarte de viste. Soldiers were eager to pose in uniform. Sensing the war would be a climactic event in their lives, they meant to leave a record of their participation.

Coddington, a graphic artist, began collecting the portraits as a boy. Fascinated with faces, he would copy, in pencil, pictures of Civil War soldiers and statesmen. That childhood hobby became an adult avocation. No longer content with merely collecting portraits, as an adult he used the National Archives to research the military service records of his 77 faces.

More light lunch than heavy dinner,Faces is nothing like the Civil War tomes found at Border's, tomes that can climb to heights of strategic abstraction and just as quickly descend into a fog of tactical minutiae. There's nothing wrong with reading a tome or two. Some of the best books on the war are phone-book thick, laden with densely written descriptions of battles and profiles of commanders. But one opus after another can dull one's appreciation of the sacrifice of the individual soldier who participated in this mid-19th century cataclysm.

Like all wars, the Civil War was waged on two levels. One -- call it the macro level -- involves the big picture. Eminent authors have written "big-picture" books that explore the myriad factors behind Union victory and Confederate defeat. By delving into the military, economic and political forces impinging on commanders, these books help us comprehend the universe of battle. Their focus is generally on large military units -- armies, corps, divisions, regiments. Any focus at all on an individual is usually on someone at the head of one of these units.

In the Civil War, the scale of the conflict was colossal. Neither North nor South in 1861 could have envisioned the scope, or horror, of the conflict. The vast extent of the disputed territory, the farflung front lines of operations of armies, the incredible cost of supplying troops, the size of the hostile armies, were all new in the eyes of civilian and military planners. More than 2,200 engagements, ranging from Vermont to Arizona Territory, were fought. More than 3 million men served in the opposing armies. On a canvas so vast, the solitary soldier gets lost in the panorama. That brings us to the second level of war -- call it the micro level. It involves the experience of the individual soldier who answers the call to arms, struggles to survive the war and strives to adjust when the shooting stops and the uniform comes off.  Coddington's book is an exploration of the micro realm.

In all, he gives us 77 portraits and thumbnail biographies of Union volunteers. In his words, "the soldiers were wealthy and poor, educated and unschooled, American-born and immigrant, city slicker and country boy." Their stories convey a range of war and post-war experiences. Some died instantly in battle, while others were shot and carried from the field, dying of wounds in bed. Some died of disease. Some declined to re-enlist, while one earned the Medal of Honor. Several survived the war and lived to old age, while other survivors died prematurely. Some struggled in the post-war years. One walked out on his family and was never heard from again. Failing to exorcize their war demons, two ended their lives in suicide -- one putting a pistol to his mouth and pulling the trigger, the other slitting his throat after shooting his wife in the head.

Coddington's contribution is best appreciated if we place his 77 volunteers into a macro-war context.

These men were participants in a holocaust. The Civil War would cost the country 620,000 lives; an average of 430 soldiers died each day of the four-year conflict. More than 20 battles had as many or more casualties than the seismic clash at Waterloo. Because antisepsis was unknown, disease took two for every one killed in battle. In the end, the death toll was higher than American losses in two world wars, Korea and Vietnam put together.

These men volunteered for a war that became a watershed in military history, the link between the wars of Napoleon and the crucible of World War I. In a very real sense, they fought in the first war of the Industrial Age. The Civil War would introduce combatants to land mines, submarines, torpedoes and hand grenades.  A grinding war of attrition, it was made bloodier by the most important innovation of the whole war: the rifled musket and the Minie ball. A French refinement, like thecartes de viste, the Minie ball could kill at half-a-mile. Yet officers still believed that to take a position you massed your men. So troops lined up, marched forward and got blown away.

Reading the thumbnail bios of Coddington's 77, one can't help projecting their stories onto the bloody canvas of the war, The four-year maelstrom sucked them in, killing some and scarring others. Survivors had to cope with what a century later physicians would call post-traumatic stress disorder. That anyone could find normalcy after a war so terrible may be a feat of heroism more laudable than seizing enemy artillery. Yet some did. One wonders if they would have flocked to the colors had they known what we know today.  

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