In 1864, young Daniel Folsom was institutionalized for something that we might consider PTSD. In a letter home to his sister, he promised her, “I shall try and be a man.” Why was Daniel so concerned with his manhood? What did it mean to be a man during the Civil War era? In this episode, we talk about masculinity during the Civil War era. 

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Transcript for Manhood in the Civil War Era

Written and researched by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Produced by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD and Marissa Rhodes, PhD

Sarah: In 1864, a young man – we’ll call him Daniel Folsom – wrote a letter to his sister to ask her for help. Daniel had been committed to the New York State Lunatic Asylum at Utica after he returned from his service in the 16th NY. Daniel had served well, and had no problems, but when he came home, he started to act strangely. He left work to wander around the town, and panicked when the a draft occurred because he was so afraid it would mean he had to go back to the frontlines. Daniel had even started to talk about suicide. His father had been worried enough that he had the young man committed. For months, he was clearly not well – he described himself as “a crazy good for nothing fellow” and at one point, begged the asylum attendants to kill him to put him out of his misery.

Marissa: But in March 1864, after some time in the asylum, Daniel was ready to come home. His only chance to get out of the asylum was to recover fully and convince the superintendent that he was well enough to leave, or to convince his father to come get him out. Not sure he could convince the superintendent of his sanity, he instead wrote to his sister to ask if she could plead with their father on his behalf. “If I stay here any longer the world will be a blank and I really think there is a chance for me yet. It is very hard to be confined for so long.”

Sarah: Daniel was mostly worried about getting back to work. Work was how he was going to prove his manhood again. By proving that he could still adhere to masculine codes of behavior –through working, living independently, remaining in control of his emotions – maybe he still had a shot at coming back from the deeply stigmatized experience of being institutionalized. It’s clear that Daniel was anxious about his manhood  – added a postscript to his letter to his sister that read, “I shall try and be a man.”

What did Daniel mean when he said he would try to be a man? What did it mean to be a man during the Civil War? This entire series is – admittedly – a shameless plug for my new book, Bodies in Blue: Disability in the Civil War North, and while the the book is, of course, about disability, it’s also about manhood. Gender is a two-way street: when we say “gender,” we’re not just using a fancy word for “woman” or “femininity,” we’re talking about the ideas and expectations that shape what it means to be a man or woman in a particular time and place. So that’s what we’re talking about in this series – various ideas about what it means to be a man in different times and places across history. And since I’m our resident Civil War nerd – and we’re shilling my book – in this episode, we’re talking about manhood and the Civil War.

I’m Sarah

And I’m Marissa

And we are your historians for this episode of DIG

Sarah: The concept of gender was one of the things that most blew my mind when I first got to college. I had just never, ever conceived of a difference between ‘sex’ and ‘gender,’ and man, that was the beginning of some stuff in my intellectual development. When I started getting into studying history, I actually didn’t automatically make the connection between history and gender – and I’m sort of ashamed to say that I thought that women’s history was boring. I was interested in war! What do women and gender have to do with war? But once I realized that men have gender too, I was absolutely hooked. For some reason, I have always just found masculinity fascinating – when Marissa was writing my index, she texted me and said “Sarah, you’re fascinated by men. Like, you really love men.” And I realized, oh my god, she’s right! So, all of this is to say that even from the time I was an undergrad, I was focused on studying the interconnections between warfare and masculinity. I wrote my undergraduate thesis at Wells College about it (masculinity and the Boston elite officers of the Union Army) and I wrote my MA thesis about it (violence and masculinity in the 1850s sectional crisis), and it’s a major component of my dissertation and now book.

And – just so no one judges me – I’ve stopped being so dismissive of women and war, and of women’s history. It’s still not what I study primarily, but once I got over some internalized misogyny, I recognized how important and interesting women’s history is!

Marissa: But while manhood is major component of Sarah’s book, it isn’t a straightforward accounting of ideas about manhood during the war era. Instead, it’s more of a close analysis of the meaning and experience of disability for men who became wounded or sick during the Civil War. Identities like gender, race, class, ability, etc., intersect.- they combine to shape each person’s interaction with the world a little differently. So in the book, while it’s about masculinity, it’s really about what it meant to be a disabled man – in other words, the combination of disability and masculinity. But today we’re gonna strip out the disability stuff and just focus on the masculinity. When a disabled man – like Daniel Folsom – said that he would “try to be a man,” what did he mean?

Sarah: For so long, because men have been assumed to be THE viewpoint, it can be sort of easy to forget that men also have gender. This was especially true in Civil War scholarship. While historians really started thinking about gender in the 1960s and 1970s, gender study was slow to catch on in Civil War scholarship for a couple of reasons – first, it seemed like gender really only applied to women, and for a lot of Civil War historians, women are sort of peripheral to the “real” stuff, and second, manhood was not necessarily considered an important way of thinking about war. But (as is probably obvious to all of you!) masculinity is critically important to understanding warfare. Take, for instance, a major question in the field of Civil War Era Studies: what made men enlist? Many books have tried to figure this out. Were some men just motivated by the chance to make a buck and be fed three times a day? Did some men feel duty-bound as citizens to serve their nation? Did some men feel like they needed to protect their dependents? Well, all of those questions are actually gender questions! The need to be productive and make a paycheck is linked to ideas about masculinity. The feeling that real men serve their country through military service is an extension of ideas about masculinity. And of course the desire, or pressure, to protect dependents is a central tenet of masculinity! It was Lee Ann Whites, argued in her pathbreaking 1995 book The Civil War as a Crisis in Gender, that men have been assumed to occupy a gendered “view from nowhere,” where the assumption is that they aren’t affected or shaped in any way by the ideas or expectations of gender. But men do have gender, and so by extension, as historians we have to try to understand manhood if we want to understand whatever field we study – in my case, as in LeeAnne Whites’, the Civil War.

Union soldier carrying a rifle and holding a bayonet
Private Horace H. Smith of Company G, 16th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment, in forage cap with bayonet, musket, cartridge box, and musket sling | Library of Congress

Marissa: Let’s start even before the war. In order to understand how men reacted when war broke out in 1861, we have to think about what the expectations of manhood were well before the war began. While ideas about masculinity are ever-changing, a few concepts have been central to manhood from America’s earliest days – though their interpretations and meanings might change over time, as we’ll get to later. For instance, it’s almost always been important that men are the heads of their households. Men were endowed by God, most early Americans believed, to be the authority over their wives, children, and other dependents. This was influenced by Puritan religious beliefs, of course – they took the book of Genesis literally when it wrote that God had instructed Eve “thy desire shall be to they husband, and he shall rule over thee.” Early Americans believed that God had constructed the world to have a certain order to it, and a central part of that order was that men were designed to be the authority figures. To be a head of household wasn’t necessarily just to be the ‘king’ of the family. Men were to be patriarchs: this meant being the family’s representative in public affairs, protecting and increasing the family’s name and legacy, and generally ensuring that the members of his family were good, upstanding people. According to historian E. Anthony Rotundo, “to head a household, in sum, was to anchor the status system, preserve the political order, provide a model of government, sustain piety, ensure productive activity, and maintain the economic support of one’s dependents.”

Sarah: Part of being a patriarch was duty – another buzz word for us in this episode. Being a good patriarch meant that you have duties that you were beholden to. It was your duty as a father and husband to ensure your family was taken care of. During the 18th century, duty also meant submission. Of course, this was also linked to Christianity: men were ultimately to submit to God in all things. This translated to the social order on earth as well.  Sometimes, in order to perform your duty, you needed to know your place in society and submit to men of higher status. But gradually over the mid-18th century, and rather dramatically during the 1770s, the idea of submission changed. During the Revolutionary era, when colonial men took the brash step of attempting to break from the British empire, submission came to mean to willingly cowering before the unjust power of the monarch. Submission, in this sense, came to mean abdicating duty. Take, for instance, no less a document than the Declaration of Independence: “The King has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.” To be manly, in this estimation, meant defying authority – a total shift from earlier ideas of manhood.

Marissa: Unsurprisingly, the Revolution changed a number of things about American manhood. An example that we used in Sarah’s episode about suits was clothing – specifically, George Washington’s clothing. American manhood always rejected clothing that was particularly frou-frou, as elaborate or fancy clothing was considered effeminate, but before the Revolution, the colonial consumerist society still meant that richer clothing indicated masculine status, especially because English men used rich fabrics and ornaments to demonstrate their wealth. However, all that fancy clothing had to be imported from England – not cool during the Revolution. Instead, men like George Washington began to indicate their new American manhood by wearing homespun cloth in sober colors. Wearing a plain, but well-constructed, black suit was now the indication of ideal manhood. Just ask John Adams, who was pilloried for wearing fancy clothes in Congress when he was vice president – the clothes, people thought, were an indication that he was an effete monarchist. (Then again, people also raised concerns about Thomas Jefferson, because his clothes weren’t quite fancy enough. Hard to find the sweet spot, it appears!)

Sarah: The Revolution also provided the spark of another component of manhood, one that would grow steadily throughout the first half of the nineteenth century: the idea of the self-made man. Independence now meant that men (and we mean men, because despite Abigail Adams’ plea to “remember the ladies,” no ladies were involved) had to build a brand-new nation all on their own. Just like the nation had to be ‘self-made,’ men as individuals would have to make themselves. Gone was the old idea that God had created a particular order to society – now, as demonstrated by the Revolution, men could insist on alternate futures through hard work, and maybe a healthy dose of bravado. Instead of thinking of themselves as just one part of a larger unit, anchored by their families and status, men now thought of themselves as individuals. And while this idea was sparked by the Revolution, it didn’t reach its fullest form until a few decades into the 19th century, with the huge economic shift known as the Market Revolution. As production moved from the household to factories during the 1820s-1840s or so, men faced even more pressure to be ‘self-made’ for a number of reasons. First, men couldn’t rely on inheriting a trade from their fathers any more, and instead had to rely on their own ambition to help them find a career unmoored from family legacies. Second, the new economy meant that men had to go out and compete for jobs, which meant sizing themselves up against other men. They would need to work hard to distinguish themselves, but also to eliminate the competition. And third, it meant that, for many men, the work they were doing on a day-to-day basis made them decidedly not independent. On the contrary – it made them submissive dependents. Before the market revolution, many men were in control of their working conditions, their hours, and their bodies. Moreover, they often did work that was highly skilled. Afterwards, however, they had to be at work at a certain time, punch the clock, report to supervisors, accept whatever wages their employers set, and perform often deskilled, menial tasks.

Marissa: Take shoemaking for example. Before the market revolution, a man might run or work in a small cobbler’s shop. He would have apprenticed for years with a skilled cobbler to develop his trade, then opened up shop himself. He crafted shoes from scratch, working at his own pace and performing each part of the process from preparing the leather to polishing them up for sale. He might even have some apprentices himself, doing his patriarchal duty to teach the next generation of cobblers. Whatever profits that came went in his pockets to provide for his dependents. But during the market revolution, a factory would take over the shoe production. Now, a man in the shoe-making trade wouldn’t apprentice to learn how to make shoes – in fact, he wouldn’t even make shoes. Instead, he would go to work in the factory for a set number of hours, where he would just stamp out the soles of shoes, or just punch the holes for the laces. For hours. And in the end, the profits didn’t go to him – they went to the factory owner, who would then pay him whatever wage he thought was reasonable. The individuality, skill, and pride were more or less stripped from work. Now, this is a little bit of an oversimplification, but it shows in broad strokes how this economic shift totally upended ideas about masculinity. If men could not longer distinguish themselves as a respectable cobbler, how would they derive their sense of manhood now? The market revolution forced men to figure out new ways to craft and assert their masculinity.

Sarah: My favorite example of this is a guy named Sam Patch. Sam Patch was a mule spinner in a textile factory in Paterson, New Jersey – meaning that he operated a machine that was used to spin cotton or wool into thread. It was manual labor that didn’t require massive amounts of technical skill, but it also wasn’t an easy job and men came to take pride in their work. Mostly, that pride came from the physical prowess that it took to be a mule spinner – and mule spinners developed ways to show off their physicality as a way of show off their manhood. They did this by falls-jumping, which is exactly what it sounds like: leaping off of water falls. It was a way of proving that they were strong, skilled, and daring – and I think one of the most important elements of falls-jumping was that it also asserted that a man’s ownership of his own body. Sure, he might work for someone else, and punch a clock, and not have a ‘real’ trade, but at least he had control over himself. And if that meant flinging himself off a waterfall to prove it, so be it! (Now that, if anything, is the definition of toxic masculinity!) There is so much more to Sam Patch’s story that you know I would love to talk about, but I will restrain myself – so instead I’ll tell you to run to your library or bookstore and pick up Paul Johnson’s Sam Patch the Famous Jumper and read it!

A lithograph of Davy Crockett in a rural setting, wearing leather clothing, surrounded by dogs
“Colonel Crockett” | Library of Congress

Marissa: In fact, exerting control over your own body became a critical component of 19th century masculinity. If nothing else, men could control their bodies. Working class men like Sam Patch often used physicality to demonstrate their masculinity. While Sam and other factory workers used falls jumping to prove his manhood, in the antebellum South, lower class men took part in what historian Elliot Gorn calls “backwoods brawling,” which was like boxing but with no rules. Well, technically there was one rule: no weapons. But other than that, it was no holds barred. The fight didn’t end when your opponent fell or lost consciousness, but when you had utterly savaged him. In fact, inflicting lasting damage was the goal – the more obvious a mark you left on your opponent the better. The sport was sometimes just referred to as “gouging,” a name that came from the signature move of using long, sharp thumbnails to gouge out an opponent’s eye. A story about Davy Crockett, the famed backwoodsman, illustrates this point. Describing one brawl he was in, Crockett recalled that “I kept my thumb in his eye, and was just going to give it a twist and bring the peeper out, like taking up a gooseberry in a spoon.” He wasn’t able to complete the task though, because someone stopped him just before he could claim his gooey prize. Gouging became embedded in backcountry lore, where brawls took on ridiculous dimensions. One legend about a brawl between two boatmen from Mississippi included details such as the combatants wearing skin ripped from each other’s faces. After the younger fighter killed the older (after he gouged out his eye) he swam to an island and yelled back to shore: “Ruoo! Ruoo! I can lick a steamboat! My fingernails is related to a sawmill on my mother’s side and my daddy was a double-breasted catamount! I wear a hoop skirt for a neck-handkerchief and the brass buttons on my coat have all been boiled in poison!”

Sarah: What on earth was that about? Well, Gorn argues that the market shift affected Southern backwoods men also, but instead going to work in factories, these men had to work hard in manual labor to make cash. In many cases, men did work such as working on river barges, hunting, or moving herds of livestock, which took them away from their families for long periods and placed them in homosocial settings instead. Just like in the urban marketplace, competition for these very physically demanding jobs was stiff. Gorn describes gouging culture this way: “On the margins of a booming, modernizing society, they shared an intensely communal yet fiercely competitive way of life. Thus, where work was least rationalized and specialized, domesticity weakest, legal institutions primitive, and the market economy feeble, rough-and-tumble fighting found fertile soil.” Gouging was a way to assert your dominance over men, and demonstrate your own ultimate control over your own body. Fighting was popular in antebellum Southern society in general, but the landed gentry initially gravitated more toward boxing, which seemed more genteel. Boxing had strict rules and ended when your opponent hit the mat, and often rich young Southern men hired boxing instructors to come teach them how to fight. (Reminds me of George Warleggan in Poldark!) But soon, boxing gave way to an even more genteel and even more highly regulated form of exerting your masculine dominance: dueling. Of course, as everyone now knows because of the musical Hamilton, dueling was commonplace in the United States during the late 18th and early 19th century, but gradually became a uniquely Southern phenomenon as the 19th century wore on. Like gouging, dueling was a way that men could demonstrate their ownership over their own, and other men’s, bodies. I think we should reserve the intricacies of dueling to its own episode (what do you think, listeners??) but I think it’s important to draw this comparison between gouging & dueling, and especially to highlight the fact that both upper class and lower class men used violence & bodily control as ways to assert their manhood.

Marissa: But Southern masculinity wasn’t all dueling and bloodshed. Historian Stephen Berry has written about a different kind of Southern manhood that he describes with the French word eclát. Berry explains eclát like this: “Wary of ambition, disdainful of vanity, and suspicious of accumulated power, Southerners liked their leading men not to make money but to be somehow affluent, not to work but be somehow accomplished, not to give orders but to be somehow followed.” In a way, Southern masculinity retained the patriarchal component that Northern manhood had since jettisoned. But Southern men did preside over large households like the patriarchs of old. Stephanie McCurry has called these very wealthy slavers “masters of small worlds” because they were masters of everything within their domain, including, of course, their slaves, but also their wives and children. Stephen Berry contends that many Southern men were hugely ambitious men who strove for greatness – after all, they were masters – and they were not content to work doing the menial labor they believed Northerners settled for. No Southern man with eclát was going to be satisfied working as a clerk or mechanic. Southern men were romantics and aristocrats, not workers.

Sarah: For example, JEB Stuart worried about what kind of career he was cut out for as he prepared to graduate from West Point in 1853. He couldn’t afford land, so couldn’t be a planter, but chafed at the idea of what he called the “hireling professions” of law, medicine, engineering, and arms.” Eventually, he declared that a career in the army at least held the possibility of “the pride and pomp and circumstance of glorious war.” Another young man, John Lincoln, found himself depressed as he thought about graduating from college. So many Southerners bought into the aristocratic notion that since many of the founding fathers were Southern, there was something uniquely excellent about southern men that set them up for a life of greatness. Lincoln wrote “I dwelt in golden castles of the delusive future, my mind more enlarged by great and noble views of life, yet strange as it may seem, the vividness of my conception of the responsibilities of life made me wish to shun them.” He wanted to be a George Washington – but the mundanity of the work that would require was discouraging.

Marissa: Before we move on to the north, we need to be very clear that the bodily control that was so important in the South was only available to certain men. Black enslaved men were utterly excluded from the ability to control their own bodies because their bodies did not belong to them. Part of the nature of dueling among the white Southern elite was the public demonstration that your body was yours to do with as you pleased, even if it meant standing still while another man shot at you. This was also lower class men’s right, either to fling themselves off waterfalls or to gouge out each others’ eyes. But this right was explicitly denied to black men, who were required to submit to physical punishment without fighting back, as a white man from any social class would be expected to do. It’s no mistake that according to the code duello, the guidebook for dueling, the punishment reserved for men who were considered beneath you was whipping or caning – to whip or cane someone was to reduce them to the status of a slave. This is also why for many white men, disability or disfigurement was synonymous with slavery. The fact that black men did not control what happened to their own bodies will become super important later on – but more on that later.

Sarah:  So what were northern men doing while Southern men were dueling and gouging? Well, we know that working class men like Sam Patch were finding other interesting ways of controlling their bodies, and it’s not as though northern men were averse to violence or rough behavior entirely.  Lower- or working-class men in the north (especially immigrants from Ireland and Germany) were often trapped in the submissive jobs required by the market, demonstrated their independence by hard drinking and carousing, and fist fighting was certainly part of that. There was also certainly a cultural of prizefighting in the North before the Civil War and immigrant Germans brought their culture of gymnasiums with them to the United States. But just as lower and upper class Southerners split over their preferred kinds of violent outbursts so too did Northern men. While lower class men believed that hard drinking, hanging out in taverns and getting into brawls was the height of manliness, middle and upper class Northern men could not disagree more. For them, masculinity was about a different kind of self-control: in their case, it meant controlling the base, passionate impulses that made you want to do ungentlemanly things like fight and drink. Keep in mind that around the same time as the market revolution the United States experienced a huge wave of religious revival called the Second Great Awakening, which swept across the entire nation but found a particular foothold in the north. With this revival came a new desire for perfectionism – in a nutshell, many Protestant Christians came to believe during the 2GA that if humans could ‘perfect’ the earth (ridding it of all sin) they could bring about the second coming of Christ, followed by (or maybe preceded by?) a millennium of peace. Therefore, for many genteel northerners, masculinity was actually marked by your ability to restrain yourself from all those sinful, unruly activities.

A stereograph of a boxing match in a Union Army camp
Soldiers from the 134th Illinois Volunteer Infantry boxing at Columbus, Kentucky | Library of Congress

Marissa: This is one reason boxing became controversial in the north – it seemed to encourage the wrong impulses. Most genteel Northern men believed that some exercise was healthy – and in a society where more and more men were working white-collar desk jobs, even necessary – but it had to be done in proper ways. Sylvester Graham, namesake of the delicious graham cracker and anti-masturbation crusader, had a lot to say about exercise. In one book of Graham’s writings, he wrote that “a certain amount of exercise or labour is essential to the welfare of man, as food or air.” Another such pithy statement was, “If a man takes too little exercise, he suffers; if exercise be excessive, he suffers.” He believed that walking was fabulous, especially when paired with bouts of “running and leaping,” but believed that horseback riding was the ideal form of exercise. In describing the effects of horseback on people with tuberculosis, he wrote “Invalids too feeble to mount, by riding a short distance the first time and increasingly the length daily, have become able, in the course of two weeks, to ride twenty miles without stopping and to feel more vigorous at the end.” Then again, Graham also believed that “the regular action of the bowels [was] of the utmost importance to health.” All of these genteel forms of exercise would result in healthy, moral, regularly-pooping middle class men. Importantly, it would also result in the right kind of body for a middle-class man. While a genteel man must be able to move with agility, he really should not be muscle-bound. In fact, one magazine worried that boxing would result in “brute bulk” and “monstrous arms and shoulders.” Heavy muscles and big arms might be attractive to us now, but they were considered low-class and boorish in the mid-19th century. We alluded to this in the suits episode too – mid 19th century suits had sloping shoulders, wide breasts and small waists, emphasizing curves and slopes, not sharp lines and musculature. Large, muscly bodies were associated with men who worked hard for a living, not refined middle-and-upper class elites.

Sarah: So, take all of these competing ideas about masculinity and then throw all of these dudes into two armies, put a lot of weapons in their hands, and then tell me gender has nothing to do with war! All of these different ideas about masculinity were reflected in the war itself. For instance, when the very knightly Confederate cavalry commander JEB Stuart (who we last discussed as he decided on a life in the army after graduation from West Point) declared “all I ask of fate is that I may be killed leading a cavalry charge,” his seemingly simple request of fate was actually a manifestation of Southern masculinity. After all, to stand up in a duel is kind of like putting yourself at the front of a cavalry charge: putting your body and your life on the line, risking death itself to prove your honorable manhood. He was also reflecting eclát by confessing his desire to die not just a dignified but glorious death like a character in one of the tremendously popular Sir Walter Scott novels. Another example of this dashing, brash Southern manhood in wartime was Laurence Keitt, a wealthy planter and fire-eater from South Carolina, was known for his violent antics in Congress. For example, in 1858, Keitt called PA Congressman Galusha Grow a “black Republican puppy.” Grow shot back “No negro-driver shall crack his whip over me!” Keitt literally went for Grow’s throat, which resulted in a 50 man melée on the floor of the House. Just two years earlier, Keitt had helped Preston Brooks beat the ever living tar out of Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner by holding back other senators from stopping the brutal caning. Keitt styled himself as a ‘visionary.’ He thought of American history and politics as one, grand epic poem, full of heroes and villains. He knew who the heroes were – brave, strong men like he and Brooks – and who the villains were – weak, ineffectual Northern men like Sumner and Grow. He longed for the day when Northern men would try to overcome the South. They would be met with overwhelming Southern force, and he said, “the city would float with blood.” Keitt got what he wanted, and more. At the battle of Cold Harbor in 1864, the brigade Keitt was leading broke, with many of his men hiding behind trees while they were supposed to be charging a small number of dismounted Union cavalry. Exposed on his horse, Keitt was shot in the gut and died. (For what it’s worth, JEB Stuart also got what he wanted, and was shot by a Michigan trooper who recognized Stuart’s distinctive and very flashy cape and hat during the Battle of Yellow Tavern, and shot the cavalry officer, who died a few hours later. Apparently, some of his last words were used to ask whether his face still looked ok.)

Marissa: Northern men, by contrast, placed emphasis on restraint. Samuel Cormany, an officer in the 16th Pennsylvania Cavalry, wrote in his diary that his goal was “control myself all around and in all cases – always correct and erect and immovable.” He strove to “control my lower, my ‘animal’ self.” This didn’t mean that Cormany never experienced emotions. In fact, he talked about weeping often in his diary, especially after his wife was recovering from a difficult childbirth. It was when that emotionality was uncontrolled that he felt discomfort. Another time, Cormany wrote “I feel so completely unmanned that I have no control of my feelings.” Soldiers often used that term, “unmanned.” In Cormany’s writing, he used it to describe any moment when he lost his restraint or control of himself, whether in terms of his emotions or, at other times, in terms of heavy drinking. Control was also critical in battle, when a man not only risked his life, but his honor if he lacked manly resolve. George Whitman, Walt Whitman’s brother, wrote to his mother about undergoing a Confederate attack with his unit, the 51st NY, saying “I was calm and cool during the whole affair as I am at any time.” Another soldier described his feelings as he thought about facing yet another battle as “cool dread – not fear.”  When an officer was cool in battle, it earned him the adoration of his men. To use the parlance of the era, coolness was the opposite of being unmanned. We do need to note that one’s behavior under fire was a universal concern for men, both Union and Confederate. For some in the Confederate army, the pressure to perform well under fire became so intense that soldiers took their own lives rather than risk dying ignobly – and soldiers in all armies worried about being caught in a moment of panic. So while there are differences between regional conceptions of manhood, they cannot be completely separated.

Sarah: Lorien Foote has written a wonderful book about the masculine dynamic of the Union Army, in which she makes a really important argument that we need to remember that there were competing ideas about manhood within the Union Army. While lower class men – those who tended toward drinking and fighting – filled the rank and file, upper class men – who prized restraint and gentility – made up the officer corps. This was bound to cause conflict. Soldiers and officers struggled with one another in part because they had competing ideas about what it meant to behave like a man and a soldier. Because officers (especially the very elite, such as the men in the Boston Brahmin regiments) often believed that their men were uncivilized boors, they treated their soldiers with extreme discipline. They spanked, beat, and even shot their soldiers to ensure that they were obeyed. Enlisted men struggled with the strict discipline of life in the army because they believed that manhood meant independence, not submission. While some soldiers responded well to strict discipline, many more chafed at it. Hundreds of men in the 20th Massachusetts (known as the Brahmin regiment, with officers drawn from the finest families of Boston, almost all of them Harvard men) actually felt so maltreated by their elite officers that they petitioned the governor demanding that their newest 2nd lieutenant be removed from command. They alleged that they had been “subjected to a tyranny worse than African slavery” and that the officer was trying to “destroy their manhood” with cruel and humiliating punishments. For many citizen-soldiers, it was difficult to square their belief that their manhood required their independence with the military demand that they submit to authority. The most successful officers were the ones who were able to command respect using a little bit of discipline and a lot of ‘cool’ – Charles Russell Lowell, colonel of the 2nd Mass Cavalry, was always mounted in battle, to demonstrate his ‘cool’ before his men, and even took to wearing a bright red sash because he believed it was “good for the men to have [him] wear it.”

Marissa: There was one group that had a great deal at stake when it came to wartime manhood: black soldiers. We’ve actually done an entire episode on black Union soldiers, so we won’t spend too much time on them now – we definitely encourage you to go listen – but it’s important to at least highlight their experience here, too. For a long time, most historians thought about the war as a watershed opportunity for black men. Most Americans doubted that black men were capable of being real men – the enslavement of many black men made the entire race, to many people’s minds, the epitome of submission. (This is why things like caning were so humiliating – it reduced the man to submissive position of the enslaved.) If the role of citizen-soldier was the pinnacle of American manhood, then surely taking up arms and donning Union blue was the way that black men would prove their manhood. This was important for black soldiers themselves, who saw it as a period of transformation for their own psyches. When a Confederate soldier asked a black soldier just who he thought he was, the soldier responded, “When God made me, I wasn’t much – but I’s a man now.” This perceived transformation was important for white onlookers too – by proving their ability to kill and die just as well as white men, they proved to whites that they were worthy of emancipation and, just maybe, even civil rights. This interpretation was embraced by the first professional black historian, WEB DuBois, who famously wrote, “How extraordinary, and what a tribute to ignorance and religious hypocrisy, is the fact that in the minds of most people, even those of liberals, only murder makes men. The slave pleaded, he was humble; he protected the women of the South, and the world ignored him. The slave killed white men; and behold, he was a man.” But it wasn’t that simple. As Carole Emberton – Sarah’s brilliant advisor – argued, it wasn’t quite that simple. Black men weren’t just working to prove their manhood, they were working to prove their humanity. Moreover, she argues that it was more than just the act of taking up arms and marching into battle that “transformed” black men – after all, many black Union soldiers weren’t used in combat at all, but in manual labor. Instead, their ability to be controlled (and control themselves) and respond to discipline was an indicator that they could be trusted in society. And of course, putting guns in the hands of black men, believed to be dangerous or dim-witted, was also a dicey prospect that needed to be handled very carefully – if black soldiers proved too adept at killing, they might not be safe for civil society.  It gets even more complicated, of course, if you factor in just how like slavery service in the Union Army could be for black men, what with backbreaking labor, lower pay than whites, and even impressment, it wasn’t as straightforward path to manhood as you might assume.

Sarah: There are a million more ways that manhood and the war intersected. Is it possible to think about the war itself as two competing belief sets about manhood? For example, the individual tendency toward restraint could be correlated to the Union Army’s general tendency toward restraint early in the war, when the federal army was under the command of George B. McClellan. McClellan famously refused to attack in battle after battle, often either letting the Confederate armies slip away from his usually overwhelming force, or allowing the southern army to make the first move, putting the Union army at a disadvantage. Abraham Lincoln was confounded by McClellan’s reluctance to attack the enemy, even writing the general in 1862 “Once more, let me tell you, it is indispensable to you that you strike a blow… I beg to assure you that I have never written you, or spoken to you, in greater kindness of feeling than now, nor with a fuller purpose to sustain. You, so far as in my anxious judgment, I consistently can. But you must act.” Later in the war, when the Union Army was led by Ulysses S. Grant, a general absolutely no sense of restraint about attacking even if it meant taking on tremendous losses, civilians wrung their hands about Grant being a butcher. On the other hand, Southern generals were known for their military audaciousness –Stonewall Jackson’s flanking attack at Chancellorsville if one example, but a more famous example might be Robert E. Lee’s attack on the third day of the battle of Gettysburg known as Pickett’s Charge. This massive attack was bold to the point of absurdity, which seems very squarely within Stephen Berry’s idea of éclat. Were these military tactics reflective of two conflicting conceptions of masculinity? I’m not sure – and I suspect some of my fellow Civil War historians might shake their heads at the idea.

Sarah: I could go on and on, but for your sake, dear listener, and for Marissa’s too, I’ll restrain myself (ha!). There are other fascinating aspects of Civil War manhood that we don’t have time fore – some, thankfully, we’ve actually touched on before, like the absolutely wild and fascinating history of manhood among Southern guerrilla fighters (who scalped their enemies and decorated their horses’ bridles with the gory skin, along with ribbons from their lady friends) You can find more about those dashing and violent men in our Civil War Guerrillas episode. Instead of tying things up nicely here at the end, instead I want to leave you with a bunch of questions. What happened to all these ideas about masculinity when a soldier was wounded, sick, or disabled? When he couldn’t control his body in the ways that men were supposed to, or restrain his emotions? What happened to those ideas about manly restraint when a soldier was in terrible pain? What happened to soldiers who couldn’t fight because they were suffering from an ailment? And how did all of this change – or not change – when the war was over and things supposedly went back to “normal?” I mean, what do you do with men who should be controlled and restrained, but who have been practicing the art of killing one another for four years? Well, for answers to those questions, do I have the book for you!

Patriarchs, Brawlers, and Gentlemen: Manhood in the Civil War Era. Dig History Podcast. Sarah Handley-Cousins "Bodies in Blue"


Cullen, Jim , “I’s A Man Now”: Gender and African American Men,” in Catherine Clinton and Nina Silber, Divided Households: Gender and the Civil War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) 

Berry, Stephen W. , All That Makes a Man: Love and Ambition in the Civil War South (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)

Emberton, Carole. “‘Only Murder Makes Men:’ Reconsidering the Black Military Experience,” The Journal of the Civil War Era, Vol 2 (September 2012), 369-393. 

Foote, Lorien. The Gentlemen and the Roughs: Violence, Honor, and Manhood in the Union Army (New York: New York University Press, 2010) 

Gorn, Elliott. “Gouge and Bite, Pull Hair and Scratch:’ The Social Significance of FIghting in the Southern Backcountry,” The American Historical Review, vol 90 (February 1985), 18-43. 

Greenberg, Kenneth S. , Honor & Slavery: Lies, Duels, Noses, Masks, Dressing as a Woman, Gifts, Strangers, Humanitarianism, Death, Slave Rebellions, The Proslavery Argument, Baseball, Huntin, and Gambling in the Old South (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996)

Handley-Cousins, Sarah. Bodies in Blue: Disability in the Civil War North. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2019) 

Linderman, Gerald F. , Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War (New York: The Free Press, 1987)

Rotundo, E. Anthony , American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era (New York: Basic Books, 1993) 

Whites, LeeAnn. The Civil War as a Crisis in Gender: Augusta, Georgia, 1860-1890 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995) 


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