Common Soldiers of the American Civil War

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The American Civil War

By Gary Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

Too often history textbooks focus on the grandiose paradigm shifts that emanate from wartime instead of shedding light on, perhaps, the most critical component of any human conflict: the role(s) of the common soldier. Historians have traditionally typecast soldiers as the pawns of historical change rather than focusing on their agency within historical change. With over 600,000 documented deaths, it is easy to forget that common soldiers had any agency at all in the Civil War.

Union soldiers in the trenches before the Battle of Petersburg in Virginia.
Union soldiers in the trenches before the Battle of Petersburg, Virginia, June 9, 1864.
(Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

Yet, as a recent lecture recorded for The Great Courses illustrates, these common soldiers were “the most important resource on each side of the war.” Their stories – their lives, dreams, interests, and fears – consequently deserve to be unearthed from the shallow graves of America’s battlefields, so that their historical agency may be put on full display for contemporary society. In fact, the history of the American Civil War was built upon a colliding collection of common citizenship – it was a deadly conflict that reflected the ideals and interests of the “common man” as much as it reflected a deadly rift between two warring nations.

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Civil War Soldiers: A Diverse Collection of Citizens

While the phrase ‘the common soldier’ has taken the form of a monolithic historical category, the men in uniform who comprised this category were far from uniform in character. The men who went into the army during the American Civil War were diverse, very diverse, in terms of what kinds of backgrounds they had. They came from diverse racial, religious, cultural, ethnic, and occupational backgrounds.

They were both immigrants and native-born citizens. The approximately three million soldiers mirrored the two American regions from which they came. Moreover, they symbolized the eclectic diversities of the individual communities in which they were raised. While the Civil War monuments of today often collect engrave their names upon the same, unifying stone monolith, each of their stories has a life of its own.

Learn more about the common soldiers in the American Civil War.

The Reasons They Raised Arms for the Civil War

Recruiting poster for the New York Cavalry, 1st Battalion, Mounted Rifles.
Recruiting poster for the New York Cavalry, 1st Battalion, Mounted Rifles, which served from 1861 to 1865 in the American Civil War. (Image: Baker & Godwin, New York/Public domain)

Bound by the same cloak of patriotism, every soldier fought for the Union or the Confederacy for different reasons. While the regiments and companies and camps of the battlefield brought diverse men together around the same campfires, and within range of the gunfire, they ultimately had different fires burning inside their beating, idiosyncratic hearts. Some fought to end slavery.

Others fought to protect the status of Southern gentility. Still others fought for the prospects of patriotic brotherhood. In some cases, soldiers had no idea why they would pledge their lives to the absurdity of mass bloodshed.

As one Confederate veteran character in a William Faulkner novel explained, “Damned if I ever did know why I fought in the Civil War.” As this comedic comment illustrates, it was not uncommon for the common man to raise arms for the unknown.

The confusion and disillusion of the American landscape did not emerge spontaneously in the ashes of the postbellum period—it was sewn in the antebellum age, as growing pains of the nascent American Republic, exploding into shrapnel and painting the fields of blood-stained civil unrest with personal perplexity.

Put simply, there were some soldiers who knew wholeheartedly why they held a bayonet in hand, yet there were many more who marched across both definitive sides of the Mason-Dixon line for indefinite reasons. Some families were even torn apart by these reverberations of discontent, as teems of brothers and cousins began wearing the dividing colors of two drastically different military teams.

Civil War: Not Just North vs. South

The inherent diversity of it all has not eluded every Civil War historian, however. Leading practitioners in the field, such as pioneering historian Bill Wiley, have tried to explicate the assortment of reasons for entering the American Civil War as a common soldier. Wiley contends that no single ideology united the Union or the Confederacy.

Yet the historiography of the Civil War is as conflicted as the actual human conflict it observes – not every historian sees eye-to-eye with Wiley’s claims. In fact, many histories continue to cast the conflict as a spectacular clash between two domineering political ideologies: North and South. Movies such as Gone with the Wind and North & South reinforce this dominant historical narrative, further silencing and simplifying the role of the common soldier.

Learn more about The American Civil War.

A group of soldiers from the 21st Michigan Infantary.
The 21st Michigan Infantry, a company of Sherman’s veterans. (Image: Mathew Brady/Public domain)

The human consciousness has a penchant for oversimplification, especially when it comes to historical deconstruction and propagation. Complexity still evades many historical monographs focused on the Civil War. Consequently, the vibrant stories of common soldiers have been overshadowed by that all-too-simplistic dichotomy ingrained into the heart of 19th-century American history—North vs. South.

Yet the true drama of the American Civil War is more akin to the diverse, complicated chronicle propagated by Bill Wiley’s histories. The history of the American Civil War is a history of the American people, a history of those wide-eyed – and, at times, visionless—commoners. It is a history of those who decided to put their lives on the line, for a variety of personal, complicated reasons.

It is a history built upon the backs and the bloodshed of the common soldiers. It is a history that is, ironically, uncommon in character.

Common Questions About Common Soldiers of the American Civil War

Q: How many Union soldiers fought in the American Civil War?

About 2.2 million common soldiers fought for the Union army during the American Civil War. Between 750,00 and 850,000 common soldiers fought for the Confederate army during the American Civil War.

Q: Who were the soldiers in the American Civil War?

The typical common soldier from both North and South was white, a native-born farmer, Protestant, single, and falling in the range between 18 and 29 years old. However, dozens of nationalities and hundreds of occupations were represented on the battle field. Likewise, there were also black, Native American, and Hispanic solders present on the battlefield during the American Civil War.

Q: What does war feel like?

This is not an easy question to answer—common soldiers fought in the American Civil War for a variety of reasons, ranging from patriotism to abolitionism, and they subsequently felt a range of emotions during the war, from excitement to despair.

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