The Union Soldier in Battle
Enduring the Ordeal of Combat
Earl J. Hess
Ribbon of Honor
I saw enough to sicken the heart. . . . The scenes which I witnessed were enough to overthrow all imaginations concerning the glory of war; but, dreadful as they were, I hope and believe that I would be willing to suffer the worst, . . . rather than prove a traitor to the trust which our country reposes in all her sons. —J. Spangler Kieffer, Pennsylvania Militia
“Rich with insight, Hess’s book merits recognition among the most insightful studies of the Civil War fighting man of the past half-century.”
—Civil War History
“Packs an emotional punch. . . . Hess explores less why Billy Yank fought than how he coped successfully with the stresses and horrors of combat, both during the war and afterward.”
—Journal of American HistorySee all reviews...
“A major contribution.”
“In a superb book, the finest to date on the ordeal of combat, Hess describes most memorably the sounds and smells and feel of combat; the randomness of death; the psychology of the battle line; changing definitions of courage; the Christian soldiers struggle with the sinfulness of killing. . . .”
—American Historical Review
“The most telling examination of the experience of battle we have. It must be taken into account by all who would write or understand Civil War military history.”
—William C. Davis, author of The Cause Lost: Myths and Realities of the Confederacy and former editor of Civil War Times Illustrated
“This book stands out as the best yet written within the genre. While it is a truism often repeated by the veterans that no one could grasp the shock and horror of battle unless he had been there, Hess takes us as close as we're likely to get without actually experiencing that dangerous event.”
—Steven E. Woodworth, author of Davis and Lee at War
“An important contribution to our understanding of the Union soldier's experiences on the battlefield. Hess describes the horrors of combat graphically and demonstrates clearly how the common soldier learned to cope, both during the war and afterwards. His analysis is on target, and so is his prose. This is a book that deserves a wide reading.”
—John F. Marszalek, author of Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order
“This is a fine book. Particularly valid is Hess's analysis of the nature of battle, with a graphic and very convincing presentation of the chaos occasioned by thick vegetation, blinding gunsmoke, and linear tactical formations.”
—Wiley Sword, author of The Confederacy's Last Hurrah
“A strong contribution to current debates about the place of ideology in the range of motivating factors. Anyone interested in why and how Northern men fought will want to read this book.”
—Gary W. Gallagher, editor of The Third Day at Gettysburg and BeyondSee fewer reviews...
With its relentless bloodshed, devastating firepower, and large-scale battles often fought on impossible terrain, the Civil War was a terrifying experience for a volunteer army. Yet, as Earl Hess shows, Union soldiers found the wherewithal to endure such terrors for four long years and emerge victorious.
A vivid reminder that the business of war is killing, Hess's study plunges us into the hellish realms of Civil War combat—a horrific experience crowded with brutalizing sights, sounds, smells, and textures. We share the terror of being shot at for the first time and hear the "grating sound a minie ball makes when it hits a bone instead of the heavy thud when it strikes flesh." We are assaulted by choruses of groans from the wounded and dying and come to understand why some soldiers returned to battle with great dread.
Drawing extensively upon the letters, diaries, and memoirs of Northern soldiers, Hess reveals their deepest fears and shocks, and also their sources of inner strength. By identifying recurrent themes found in these accounts, Hess constructs a multilayered view of the many ways in which these men coped with the challenges of battle. He shows how they were bolstered by belief in God and country, or simply by their sense of duty; how they came to rely on the support of their comrades; and how they learned to muster self-control in order to persevere from one battle to the next.
Although our ability to appreciate war as it was conducted in the previous century has been clouded by our familiarity with modern conflicts, Hess's study conveys that reality with an immediacy rarely matched by other books. Even more, it urges us to reconsider these soldiers not as victims of the battlefield but rather as victors over the worst that war can inflict.