Living Hell: The Dark Side of the Civil War
Michael C. C. Adams
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Many Americans, argues Michael C. C. Adams, tend to think of the Civil War as more glorious, less awful, than the reality. Millions of tourists flock to battlefields each year as vacation destinations, their perceptions of the war often shaped by reenactors who work hard for verisimilitude but who cannot ultimately simulate mutilation, madness, chronic disease, advanced physical decay. In Living Hell, Adams tries a different tack, clustering the voices of myriad actual participants on the firing line or in the hospital ward to create a virtual historical reenactment.
Perhaps because the United States has not seen conventional war on its own soil since 1865, the collective memory of its horror has faded, so that we have sanitized and romanticized even the experience of the Civil War. Neither film nor reenactment can fully capture the hard truth of the four-year conflict. Living Hell presents a stark portrait of the human costs of the Civil War and gives readers a more accurate appreciation of its profound and lasting consequences.
Adams examines the sharp contrast between the expectations of recruits versus the realities of communal living, the enormous problems of dirt and exposure, poor diet, malnutrition, and disease. He describes the slaughter produced by close-order combat, the difficulties of cleaning up the battlefields—where tens of thousands of dead and wounded often lay in an area of only a few square miles—and the resulting psychological damage survivors experienced.
Drawing extensively on letters and memoirs of individual soldiers, Adams assembles vivid accounts of the distress Confederate and Union soldiers faced daily: sickness, exhaustion, hunger, devastating injuries, and makeshift hospitals where saws were often the medical instrument of choice.
Inverting Robert E. Lee's famous line about war, Adams suggests that too many Americans become fond of war out of ignorance of its terrors. Providing a powerful counterpoint to Civil War glorification, Living Hell echoes William Tecumseh Sherman's comment that war is cruelty and cannot be refined.
pp. 207–8. 35. Mitchell, Injuries of Nerves, pp. 230–31, 268–70, 273–74. 36. Mitchell, Injuries of Nerves, pp. 292–94, 298–300. 37. Mitchell, Injuries of Nerves, pp. 302–7, 319–20, 331–33. 38. Richard Barksdale Harwell, ed., Kate a Confederate Nurse (1866, repr. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959), pp. 99, 20–21. 39. Burr, Thomas, pp. 229–30; John R. Brumgardt, ed., Civil War Nurse: The Diary and Letters of Hannah Ropes (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1980), p.
corpses to the port rails for later sea burial. A survivor told the correspondent for the Baltimore American that “The decks were slippery with blood, and arms and legs and chunks of flesh were strewed about.” John C. Kinney, signals officer on the Hartford, engaged in Mobile Bay on August 5, 1864, said, “Shot after shot came through the side, mowing down the men, deluging the decks with blood, and scattering mangled fragments of humanity so thickly that it was difficult to stand on the deck, so
neck, head, and brain). The treatment failed to take. After a massive effusion of blood, Quick became comatose and died minutes later. Autopsy revealed the carotid artery rotted through at the site of the suture.31 Patients suffering massive facial damage, such as crushed jaws, had little hope of a full recovery and normal life. Mary Boykin Chesnut, nursing at a Virginia hospital, The Wayside, in November 1864, daily spoon-fed hominy rice, gravy, milk, and softened bread to four men unable to
against each other. “We live on a mine,” she said.39 While both black and white wondered what tomorrow might bring, praying for peace, there hung over all America a great cloud of grief that embraced all races and both genders as the casualty lists swelled. Walt Whitman “heard over the whole land, the last three years of the struggle, an unending, universal mourning—wail of woman, parents, orphans.” He envisioned the country as one huge surgery: “it seemed sometimes as if the whole interest
no prisoners after this.” Custer, who had Southern friends at West Point, nevertheless became vicious in hunting down and killing rangers, even in front of their families, perhaps an example of psychotic fury. In an inevitable escalation, Lee announced in November 1864: “I have directed Colonel Mosby to hang an equal number of Custer’s men in retaliation for those executed by him.” Still, some of this mutual savagery might have been avoided. In a recent study, Daniel E. Sutherland argues that