By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2011-2012, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the September 2011 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. William Tecumseh Sherman and Stonewall Jackson. Everyone in this room knows the contributions of these men to the Civil War. But that war, like all wars, included contributions of numerous people whose names are not known to history. A Union soldier who fought at Gettysburg said it best. “Generals and Admirals win high renown for the military achievements of their men, but personal deeds of heroism by simple privates or subalterns are rarely recorded.” Sometimes we focus so much on the well-known figures of the Civil War that we fail to adequately acknowledge the heroic deeds of those whose names we do not know. In his book Mr. Lincoln’s Army Bruce Catton has a marvelous passage which conveys the awesome contributions of numerous men whose names are not well known to history. It is one of those passages that, after you read it, you may not remember the exact words, but you never forget that you read it. The passage reads as follows.
“It may be that life is not man’s most precious possession, after all. Certainly men can be induced to give it away very freely at times, and the terms hardly seem to make sense unless there is something about the whole business that we don’t understand. Lives are spent for very insignificant things which benefit the dead not at all–a few rods of ground in a cornfield, for instance, or temporary ownership of a little hill or piece of windy pasture; and now and then they are simply wasted outright, with nobody gaining anything at all. And we talk glibly about the accidents of battle and the mistakes of generalship.”
Whenever I read a passage as good as that one, I imagine the author completing it, leaning back from his desk, and saying to himself with a deep feeling of satisfaction, “Now that’s good.” That passage from Bruce Catton’s book is really good in how beautifully it conveys that even the smallest accomplishments in battle are bought through legions of men making the ultimate sacrifice and never knowing if the objective was attained. That short passage also conveys just how insignificant battlefield gains seem in light of the costs. All of us, who enjoy studying and analyzing Civil War battles, should keep that passage in mind whenever we look at a map of a battle and look at the small rectangles depicted on the map moving against an enemy position. Those arrows on the map were put there at great price, what Lincoln called “the last full measure.” Almost all of the men who paid that price are given little individual recognition in history for doing so.
We rightly preserve the memory of Lincoln and Davis, Grant and Lee, and Sherman and Stonewall. These men and what they accomplished are well known to all of us, and there is no denying that every one of these men had a major impact on the Civil War. But there is also no denying that everything they accomplished resulted from “personal deeds of heroism by simple privates and subalterns,” and those deeds and those men are largely unknown to those, like us, who benefited from them.