Publication Date

April 2020




University of North Carolina Press


American politics is supposed to be about separation -- separation of powers, separation of church and state, and particularly separation of the military from civilian political process. One look back at that series of ‘separations’ reminds us how often separation gets breached in practice, and never more so in the civil-military category than during the Civil War. This should not necessarily be a surprise. The Civil War was an overtly political war, fought over political issues (as opposed to a war of conquest and annexation, like the Mexican War, or national tetchiness, as was the War of 1812). Moreover, Civil War soldiers were overwhelmingly freshly-recruited civilians (rather than long-service professionals). They saw no reason to leave civilian politics – which, as Donn Piatt wrily observed, had for “an American citizen all the fanaticism of religion and all the fascination of gambling” -- behind them.[1] And yet, studies of the politics of the Civil War military are maddeningly thin. Partly, this occurs because we assume a separation of the civil from the military and therefore blind ourselves to the political when it stands before us in uniform. Partly, this is because the overall political history of the war itself has suffered such heavy side-lining. Although Rachel Shelden, in a recent article in Civil War History, optimistically claims that the “political history of the period is thriving,” much of her optimism depends on eliding the political into the economic, the cultural and the demographic.[2] At no point does she even notice that the Civil War military might have exercised a spasm or two of the political...

[1] Piatt, Memories of the Men Who Saved the Union (New York: Belford, Clarke & Co., 1887), 141.

[2] Shelden, “The Politics of Continuity and Change in the Long Civil War Era,” Civil War History 65 (December 2019), 319-41.