Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Shades of Blue and Gray: A Civil War Comparison

By Pamela Chase Hain and Robert C. Plumb

This blog post is an ongoing examination of the differences between a Confederate soldier/sailor and a Union soldier by the authors of A Confederate Chronicle: The Life of a Civil War Survivor (Pamela Chase Hain) and Your Brother in Arms: A Union Soldier’s Odyssey (Robert C. Plumb.) Both books are part of the Shades of Blue and Gray Series on the Civil War published by the University of Missouri Press.

This discussion will explore the differences (and similarities) of two active participants in the Civil War over a number of issues as they fought on opposite sides of what became one of the bloodiest and most transformative periods in American history. The content of this blog post represents the experiences of two individuals and their environments. While these comparisons may reflect the situations of many members of both the Confederate and Union armies, they are not meant to be extrapolated or generalized. Thomas Wragg and George McClelland are not archetypes or prototypes. They are two bright, independent young men who were drawn into a conflict that tested them beyond any measure that they had ever been tested before.

Readers are encouraged to post their comments, observations and challenges to what is written here.

George Pressly McClelland – Enlisted in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and served with the 155th Pennsylvania Infantry, Army of the Potomac, from August 1862 until his discharge in June, 1865 when the Union army was demobilized. Rising from private to brevet major, he participated in nearly all of the battles fought by the Army of the Potomac during the time of his service from Gettysburg to Petersburg and dozens of places in between. He was wounded in action twice; his second wound, at Five Forks, Virginia in April 1865, was disabling and he spent the remainder of his service in hospitals in Petersburg, Washington City and Pittsburgh.

Thomas L. Wragg -- Thomas Wragg, a Savannah resident, fought as a private with the 8th Georgia Regiment for a year and then returned to Savannah where he joined the Confederate Navy, becoming a Master in the Savannah River Squadron. He studied ordnance and gunnery under a former Federal naval officer on board the CSS Georgia, but was captured on his first venture out to sea on board the CSS Atlanta, an ironclad ship. Wragg spent eighteen months in prison on Fort Warren in Boston Harbor, was paroled and returned to fight with the James River Squadron until the War ended.

1. Why did they go to war? What outside pressure was there to join?

Blue - George McClelland

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was a hot bed of Union sentiment before Lincoln won the election of 1860 and only became more intense after he was inaugurated. Signs were placed on lampposts in the city after the surrender of Fort Sumter that read: “Death to traitors.” Recruiting posters appeared throughout Pittsburgh starting in April 1861 and the political, business and religious leaders of the city became active spokesmen encouraging young men to enlist in the regiments that were being quickly formed in Pittsburgh and surrounding Allegheny County. The governor, local judges, professors, clergy and prominent businessmen alike urged the city’s young men to enlist for the sake of the Union.

Speakers often recalled the Revolution and the need to sustain the work of the founding fathers in establishing the Republic. The thrust of most speakers was a strong appeal to the supremacy of constitutional law and the preservation of the Union. By spring 1862, it was very difficult for a young man, such as George McClelland, to conduct his daily affairs or walk down a city street without being exposed to calls to enlist to save the Union. There is scant evidence to indicate that Pittsburgh leadership or the average citizen in the city saw the abolition of slavery as a primary rationale to enlist or fight the Secessionists. George McClelland never mentions slavery, abolition or emancipation in the letters he wrote to his family from the front lines of the war.

Gray – Thomas Wragg

There has been much debate as to why Southerners were compelled to go to War. Was it "states rights" or was it slavery. Even in the last year the arguments either way rage on in the local paper. In my book, A Confederate Chronicle: The Life of a Civil War Survivor, I have concluded that my great grandfather, Thomas Wragg did not go to war for either reason. He went to war for the same reason that Robert E. Lee went to war: it was his duty. In Lee's case, it was duty to his State. The understanding of the word duty in the mind of a 19th century individual is different from today. It held a great deal more meaning. Duty was compulsory for a man of "honor"--another 19th century word that held a lot more sway that it does today.

Thomas was 18 years old when the war began. His father was a respected physician living in an elegant town house near the Savannah River. They, no doubt, had a few slaves to keep house, cook and take care of the horse and buggy the doctor used to travel to see patients. Those few slaves were not his reason for going to war. What compelled him to go was the emotional and indignant outcry from the populous claiming that it was every mans' duty to fight against the northerners--for every variety of reasons. I could imagine the young, recent high school graduate asking his father why he should join the Oglethorpe Light Infantry, later to become the 8th Georgia Regiment, and go to fight the north, and his father saying: "It is your duty." That was enough of a reason. He didn't need slavery or states rights. One statement Wragg made at the beginning of the War convinces me that he did not have a clear ideological reason for going to war. He said: "I wish they would fight and be done with it so we could live." Those words would not have come from a man committed to a cause. When he found out that his older brother was joining a regiment in Charleston, SC, he wrote to his father: "I wish I could do his duty as well as mine."

2. What was the soldier’s attitude toward the enemy? Did it change?

Blue - George McClelland

McClelland occasionally characterizes the Confederates as “traitors” – in some cases as “foul traitors” – in his letters during the duration of his service. Usually, however, he refers to his foes simply as “Sesech” or “Rebs,” terms that are more an acknowledgement of misguided opponents than despised enemies. He has admiration for Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson as brave and talented military strategists reserving his dislike for the Confederate political leadership: e.g. Jefferson Davis and his “hell born Confederacy.” (April 1864) Even stronger is McClelland’s dislike for northern Democrats when he refers to the “ravings of the traitorous Copperheads.” (April 1864)

Overall McClelland has a conciliatory attitude toward his enemy and recognizes that the “Rebs” will become brothers once again in the future when the war is over and the Union made whole once again. “[E]ven if the Union is again restored whole, generations will have come and gone before the bitter recollections of the war will perish and brotherly concord intervene between the two sections.” (January 1863) This attitude of reconciliation after the war and “brotherly concord” are very different from the perceptions and descriptions of enemies in wars fought by the U.S. since the Civil War. In these later conflicts, vilification of the enemy – including exaggerated stereotypes – have been common. McClelland’s dislike for his enemy is primarily philosophical and institutional and not usually directed at the individual Confederate soldier. This attitude did not change during the course of his service throughout the war.

Gray – Thomas Wragg

When Thomas Wragg first arrived in Harpers Ferry with the Eighth Georgia Regiment, he was more interested in thinking about his girl friend back home, food and other creature comforts . He referred to the Federals as the "Yankees,"and showed little interest in engaging in battle with them. Following the first battle at Bull Run and the death of his commander, Col. Francis Bartow, and so many of his hometown friends, he called the Federal troops "the enemy" and his feelings hardened. He spoke of seeing the "once Glorious Stars and Stripes" in the distance. And yet, although he fought for almost eight hours at Bull Run, he was shooting blind, and appeared not to connect the shooting with killing. His father must have asked him how many Yankees he had killed. He responded: "I can only say that I am certain of one". This was a man who rode in front of his forces waving a sword. "I took good aim and fired, he fell. I did not wait to see more but got out of their way." Following the battle, the Confederates took every possession from the Federal dead including their clothes and buried the dead in shallow graves. Wild hogs dug them up, ate the flesh and scattered the bones on the ground. With a clinical, unemotional voice, Wragg wrote to his doctor father that he wanted to bring him home a man's skull, no doubt to display in his medical office. However, having no way to send it home, Wragg did not take it. But other Confederate soldiers, he confided, took home fingers and toes as souvenirs. To them, the Yankees were not humans--they were alien hordes come down to destroy life as they knew it.