Campus & Community

Civil War soldiers fought with pen as well as sword

6 min read
Graduate student Chandra Miller has been studying newspapers published during the Civil War in an attempt to support her theory regarding the true motivations of Union and Confederate soldiers. She is pictured in Memorial Hall, built as a tribute to Union soldiers. (Staff photo by Kris Snibbe)

One of the questions Civil War historians have argued over is the extent to which ordinary enlisted men cared about the issues behind the conflict.

Were the war’s ideological differences – especially the question of slavery – of vital interest to these men, or were the soldiers simply apolitical conscripts who fought because they had no choice in the matter?

Over the past two years, history graduate student Chandra Miller has uncovered important primary source material that throws new light on this question.

Crisscrossing the United States over the course of two summers and one fall semester, Miller found about 100 regimental newspapers – periodicals written, edited, and printed by enlisted men and junior officers on both sides of the conflict. Produced under difficult conditions, often on the heels of battle, these newspapers offer an important look at what common soldiers were thinking as the war raged about them.

“We knew the regimental newspapers existed, but Chandra is the first person to make extensive use of them,” said Miller’s dissertation advisor, History Professor William Gienapp. “They’re a unique source. There’s nothing quite equivalent to them. They reflect the issues the men were talking about and debating in camp, and carry a very different perspective from the civilian newspapers.”

Miller’s search began with an article by the Civil War historian Bell Irwin Wiley called “Camp Newspapers of the Confederacy.” Wiley is also the author of two influential books about ordinary Civil War soldiers: “The Life of Johnny Reb” (Bobbs-Merrill, 1943) and “The Life of Billy Yank” (Bobbs-Merrill, 1952).

In the article, Wiley mentioned regimental newspapers and promised to write a book on the subject, but the book never materialized.

“So I decided to look for them,” Miller said.

Traveling mostly by train, and carrying camping equipment in case there were no accommodations available (she only had to camp out once), Miller scoured a total of 45 archives known to possess Civil War materials. In most cases she had to look through every newspaper published between 1861 and 1865 to find what she was looking for.

One thing that struck Miller about these publications was the sheer determination that went into putting them out. In some cases, soldiers carried their own printing press, a heavy burden for troops on the march. “It shows how much publishing the paper meant to them,” Miller said.

The men of one regiment, the Ohio 7th, were determined to put out a paper, but their marching orders kept interfering with their plans to publish. When they finally did get their newspaper in print, they wrote of how they had been “carrying type in their knapsacks and hats through three states.”

Some regimental journalists managed to get out a paper without the aid of any printing press. The Campaign Hornet of the 2nd Arkansas Mounted Rifles, four issues of which Miller found in the University of Arkansas library, was written by hand with the stories inscribed in neat newspaper-like columns. The Pioneer Banner, a Confederate paper, was also hand-written.

The content of these newspapers varied greatly. One of their functions was to serve as an outlet for griping about army conditions – the food, officers, etc. One paper describes an officer as having “the cloven hoof of Mephistopheles.” Despite such remarks, none of the papers seems to have been censored, as far as Miller has been able to tell.

Another purpose was to convey news from home, probably culled from individual letters from family. This was a popular function since the men in most regiments came from the same town or geographic area.

But an equally important function of these papers was to discuss political and moral issues, a discovery that tends to confirm the idea that enlisted men did care about such questions.

“In the Union papers, slavery is debated constantly, not only whether it was right or wrong, but slavery as an aspect of war policy,” Miller said.

The Confederate papers, on the other hand, seemed to reflect a less active stance. Confederate soldiers seemed to be merely reacting to events and didn’t appear to see themselves as having much influence on shaping political attitudes, Miller said.

Both sides use the newspapers to give meaning to their experience and to the suffering and sacrifice endured for their cause.

“I believe the regimental newspapers played an important role in trying to make the war mean something, to assimilate what was happening and infuse it with meaning, to not let all the sacrifice be for nothing.”

Another common theme is that soldiers from both sides seemed to see themselves as citizens first and soldiers second, Miller said.

“In the 19th century, being a citizen was a very active thing.”

Some of the papers contain profoundly moving stories about the war. In the Corinth Chanticleer of the 2nd Iowa, Miller found an article about the Battle of Shiloh (April 1862), whose 20,000 casualties eclipsed those of all the other battles that preceded it.

Written a year after the battle by a soldier whose job was to gather the bodies of the dead and wounded, the article tells of a dying soldier consumed with thirst but too weak to drink from a puddle at his elbow. The soldier begins to sing a hymn, and the other wounded soldiers, lying helpless in the rain, join in.

“The writer then talks about accepting the war as a judgment on the nation and about the need to work toward redemption,” Miller said.

Miller has been fascinated by the Civil War for most of her life. It was an interest she picked up from her grandmother, a Civil War buff. She said that she has never been in doubt about her desire to study history or about what period to concentrate in.

“When I started working on a dissertation, I wanted an excuse to read Civil War letters and diaries, but at that point I didn’t know about the regimental newspapers.”

The finding has caused something of a stir in local circles. Miller, who currently lives in Lawrence, Kansas, and works for the Kansas Historical Society, has published an article on the papers in the journal Kansas History and has spoken about them to groups in Kansas and Missouri.

She is also working on a dissertation titled “What this Cruel War Was Over: Why Union and Confederate Soldiers Thought They Were Fighting the Civil War.” The title is a play on the name of a popular Civil War song, “When this Cruel War Is Over.”

It may be that almost 150 years after they were published, these humble periodicals will bring some renown to their discoverer. But Miller is happy simply to have brought them to light.

“Just the fact that they existed is tremendously exciting to me.”