Fighting Means Killing
Civil War Soldiers and the Nature of Combat
Jonathan M. Steplyk
“War means fighting, and fighting means killing.” Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest famously declared.
The Civil War was fundamentally a matter of Americans killing Americans. This undeniable reality is what Jonathan Steplyk explores in Fighting Means Killing, the first book-length study of Union and Confederate soldiers’ attitudes toward, and experiences of, killing in the Civil War.
“[Steplyk’s] work stands apart because it focuses exclusively on what soldiers in blue and gray thought about taking human life and what performing the most traumatizing military duty did to them.”
—Journal of American History
“Steplyk has taken us into the mindsets of the individuals who faced the enormous challenges of killing their opponents. He has often done so with compelling arguments that contribute to our understanding of the conflict.”
—Civil War NewsSee all reviews...
“Steplyk’s study brilliantly blends military history and social history, pioneering an interpretation of how Civil War soldiers understood fighting and killing, war’s most important, inescapable element.”
—Journal of Southern History
“Steplyk makes an important contribution to the body of Civil War combat scholarship by delving into areas of this subject others formerly touched upon or have not covered at all.”
—Journal of Arizona History
“To the experienced Civil War reader, the battles, occurrences and number of the soldier accounts Steplyk examines are familiar. The conclusions that he draws relative to the subject matter of his study, however, are fresh.”
—Civil War Book Review
“Through a judicious use of primary and secondary sources, Steplyk contributes to the discussion of the motivations and recollections of the Civil War soldiers and provides an in-depth examination of the attitudes toward killing in combat.”
“Initiates a vital discussion on the psychology and meaning of killing for nineteenth-century soldiers.”
—Journal of Military History
“Steplyk has employed extensive research in primary sources to offer insights into how citizen soldiers reacted and adapted to the reality of deadly combat in all of its Civil War forms. this is simply a brilliant book.”
—Civil War Monitor
“This work breaks new ground in understanding how civil War soldiers managed the problem of killing, and is certainly important reading not only for those interested in the Blue and Gray, but also in experience of combat in any war.”
—New York Military Affairs Symposium
“Steplyk’s work is welcome addition to the Civil War historiography as it is the first book-length project on the nature of killing. The author provides a balanced perspective to his study including references to both Union and Confederate soldiers; thereby, demonstrating that both sides underwent similar experiences during the war.”
—Journal of the Shenandoah Valley During the Civil War Era
“Drawing on diaries, letters, and other reminiscences, this is military and social history of the first order.”
“Fighting Means Killing is the first of its kind, the only book-length exploration of the act of killing on the Civil War battlefield. It provides a meaningful analysis of the social and culture forces that made taking the lives of fellow Americans acceptable to Union and Confederate volunteers. The author uses a variety of firsthand sources to reconsider how participating soldiers both experienced and perceived different modes of killing and presents his findings in ways that sometimes challenge traditional interpretations.”
—Civil War Books and Authors
“Numerous books on the Civil War deal in part with the idea of killing in combat, but none make it a central theme and certainly none make it the entire subject. Jonathan M. Steplyk’s Fighting Means Killing: Civil War Soldiers and the Nature of Combat is thus a unique addition to our understanding of the war. Blending an impressive argument about soldiers’ lack of aversion to killing with what historians have found about the nature of killing in other wars, Steplyk offers an engrossing and convincing look into one of the Civil War’s more grisly issues.”
—Timothy B. Smith, author of Shiloh: Conquer or Perish and Grant Invades Tennessee: The 1862 Battles for Forts Henry and Donelson
“Americans of the nineteenth century were all too aware of death, even violent death at the hands of each other. But nothing prepared the nation for the scale of military killing generated by the Civil War. Nor will we, who have learned to sentimentalize that conflict so much, be prepared for the profile of slaughter laid out so skillfully by Jonathan Steplyk. This book presents the horrific edge of killing in the most sobering detail, from Elmer Ellsworth to Ft. Pillow. It is a story of good deaths and bad, of blind bloodlust and instinctive repugnance, of bayonets and musket stocks, of closed eyes and open wounds—which is to say, an all-too-human story. I have never seen the Civil War’s ‘face of battle’ appear in uglier or clearer form.”
—Allen C. Guelzo, Henry R. Luce III Professor of the Civil War Era and director of the Civil War Era Studies Program, Gettysburg College
“The Civil War was the deadliest conflict in American history, but many soldiers had to overcome religious or moral scruples against killing. How did they do it? There is no simple or single answer to this question. Jonathan Steplyk’s answers, grounded in thorough research and incisive analysis, offer new perspectives on the motives of Civil War soldiers.”
—James M. McPherson, author of The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters
“Steplyk is the first Civil War historian to write a book that directly considers the uncomfortable truth that the war’s soldiers were willing killers. By analyzing why, how, and when soldiers killed (and did not kill), this thought-provoking and important work of cultural and military history takes readers to the epicenter of combat and to the heart of the soldier.”
—Lorien Foote, author of The Yankee Plague: Escaped Union Prisoners and the Collapse of the ConfederacySee fewer reviews...
Drawing upon letters, diaries, and postwar reminiscences, Steplyk examines what soldiers and veterans thought about killing before, during, and after the war. How did these soldiers view sharpshooters? How about hand-to-hand combat? What language did they use to describe killing in combat? What cultural and societal factors influenced their attitudes? And what was the impact of race in battlefield atrocities and bitter clashes between white Confederates and black Federals? These are the questions that Steplyk seeks to answer in Fighting Means Killing, a work that bridges the gap between military and social history—and that shifts the focus on the tragedy of the Civil War from fighting and dying for cause and country to fighting and killing.