With the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg coming up, I thought I would share what I learned through researching and writing about the battle, the soldiers, and life during the Civil War years.
I decided that the daily entries of the soldiers featured in my book 35 Days to Gettysburg: The Campaign Diaries of Two American Enemies, would be an interesting and relevant source as a starting point. My “elevator speech” summary for the book goes something like this: I took two previously unpublished diaries—one Union, one Confederate—and put the entries side-by-side, day-by-day through the entire Gettysburg Campaign. The soldiers are on a collision course, but they don’t know it. They end up fighting within musket-shot of one another—one in the Triangular Field, the other on the slope of Little Round Top.
If pressed, I’ll say that the book is a microcosm of the battle, from the point of view of the common soldiers. The reader learns what the average soldier did, felt, and thought about on a daily basis on an active campaign. So on any day, the reader can re-live what the soldier did 150 years before, in some cases, right down to the minute.
For example, on June 7, 1863, Franklin Horner, the Union soldier, was encamped near Upton’s Hill, Virginia, working on defensive fortifications for Washington D.C. Thomas Ware, the Confederate, was on a return march to his camp near Culpeper, VA after his unit was called out on what appeared to be a rumor of the enemy’s advance.
I took the time in my narrative of that chapter to discuss motivations—or lack thereof—for the two men to enlist. Unfortunately, neither mentions any reason why they originally got caught up in the bloodiest conflict the nation has ever known. Even more astounding is that nowhere in either diary after two years of daily entries is there any mention of slavery or states’ rights or abolition, reunion or rebellion.
Years ago, when I did living history as an “interpretive ranger/historian” for the National Park Service at Gettysburg, I wanted to illuminate the fact that the “causes” of the Civil War (according to scholars and historians) were not the same as the reasons why the individual soldiers fought. Dressed as a Confederate soldier and talking in “first person” as if I were the young rebel, I would tell the people that I was fighting for a fence.
My story was that my father and I spent two years putting up a stout post and rail fence around our (imaginary) farm in Virginia. It was hard work, I told them. Cutting down the trees, splitting the wood for rails and posts, digging the post holes, auguring the holes in the posts, and finally putting up a nice, straight fence to keep our cows in. Then the war broke out and the Yankees came. They camped on our farm. They tore down the fence within the first hour and burned it for firewood. They killed all our cows and pigs for food, stole our corn and trampled all our wheat. Then they marched away leaving my mother, father and little sisters and brothers without food for the winter.
That’s why I was fighting in Pennsylvania: not for slavery or states’ rights, but so the Yankees couldn’t come on my father’s farm again and steal and wreck what we had.
Back then (as a first year park ranger) I had studied the Civil War enough to know that the numbers just didn’t fit. Only 7 percent of all southerners owned slaves. Why would the average southern boy fight and possibly die so that the rich neighbor on the hill could keep his slaves? It didn’t make sense back then. It doesn’t now.
I was glad to see that my hunch was verified some twenty-two years later when I studied personal diaries of the participants (I read some 300 during my research) and realized that the motives for men going into combat are far different from what the scholars and historians would like us to believe.