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.

“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

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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.

About the Author

Jonathan M. Steplyk is adjunct instructor at Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, and adjunct lecturer at the University of Texas at Arlington. His work has been published in The Tennessee Campaign of 1864 and a forthcoming anthology on the siege of Vicksburg.