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The War for the Common Soldier

How Men Thought, Fought, and Survived in Civil War Armies

By Peter S. Carmichael

408 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 31 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-4309-0
    Published: December 2018
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-4310-6
    Published: November 2018

Littlefield History of the Civil War Era

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Awards & distinctions

2018 NYMAS Civil War Book Award, New York Military Affairs Symposium

How did Civil War soldiers endure the brutal and unpredictable existence of army life during the conflict? This question is at the heart of Peter S. Carmichael's sweeping new study of men at war. Based on close examination of the letters and records left behind by individual soldiers from both the North and the South, Carmichael explores the totality of the Civil War experience--the marching, the fighting, the boredom, the idealism, the exhaustion, the punishments, and the frustrations of being away from families who often faced their own dire circumstances. Carmichael focuses not on what soldiers thought but rather how they thought. In doing so, he reveals how, to the shock of most men, well-established notions of duty or disobedience, morality or immorality, loyalty or disloyalty, and bravery or cowardice were blurred by war.

Digging deeply into his soldiers' writing, Carmichael resists the idea that there was "a common soldier" but looks into their own words to find common threads in soldiers' experiences and ways of understanding what was happening around them. In the end, he argues that a pragmatic philosophy of soldiering emerged, guiding members of the rank and file as they struggled to live with the contradictory elements of their violent and volatile world. Soldiering in the Civil War, as Carmichael argues, was never a state of being but a process of becoming.

About the Author

Peter S. Carmichael is the Robert C. Fluhrer Professor of Civil War Studies, director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, and author of previous books, including The Last Generation.
For more information about Peter S. Carmichael, visit the Author Page.


“A much-needed update of the experience of the Civil War's fighting men on both sides. . . . He illustrates his main points with extensive quotations from primary sources plus a variety of contemporary illustrations that significantly add to the context. Carmichael is both an experienced author and a versatile presenter, and it shows; though the main text is just over 300 pages, his presentation has both breadth and depth. It is, in all, a major achievement.”--Choice

“Carmichael’s work goes a long way toward helping those who might support, or participate in, future conflicts to understand how their predecessors met and overcame significant challenges when called to face their own iterations of injustice.”--H-Net Reviews

“Impressive, if not impeccable . . . . The War for the Common Soldier is a serious and important work.”--Civil War News

"How did Civil War soldiers face the daily pandemonium and dreariness of fighting a war? Bringing us straight into their hearts and minds, Peter Carmichael skillfully illuminates how the men continually juggled patriotism and apathy, obedience and defiance, manliness and vulnerability, zeal and exhaustion, bravery and dread, both on and off the battlefield."--Martha Hodes, author of Mourning Lincoln

"The question of why men fought has long engaged students and scholars of the Civil War. Extending his attention to many untapped, unexplored aspects of the military experience--from the glorious to the ghastly--Carmichael has done a masterful job in painting a complex, and vivid portrait of the common soldier North and South. His characters test their courage on the battlefield, keep faith with the home front, test their belief in country, family, and God, and develop new communities among their brother soldiers. Carmichael has combined exhaustive research, deep analysis, and graceful writing to assemble one of the best such accounts ever produced."--Harold Holzer, author of Lincoln and the Power of the Press

"In Carmichael's glorious book, Civil War soldiers find themselves, if they are lucky, in the eye of a storm, a pragmatic 'come-what-may' mental state that lasts until they are 'played out' or the war is over, and their former selves come flooding back in a process of unbecoming every bit as fraught as the process of becoming a soldier had been. This is a smart, beautiful book; it is a trenchant demand for us to return again to the study of the Civil War's common soldier; and it is a triumph."--Stephen Berry, author of House of Abraham