(part one of two)
When I first read Brian Steel Wills’ book Inglorious Passages: Noncombat Deaths in the American Civil War, I had to let it sit with me for a bit. By that, I mean that I’d had such a powerful reading experience that I needed time to process it, to let it sink in. Reviewing it for LSU’s Civil War Book Review, I called the effect “staggering.” “He catalogues such a multitude of deaths, in so many ways, that one cannot help but feel their collective weight,” I wrote.
Inglorious Passages received the Harwell Award at the Atlanta Civil War Roundtable for the best book of 2017, and it was a finalist for the 2017 Emerging Civil War Book Award.
I had the opportunity not too long ago to talk with Wills about his book. He is the director of the Center for the Study of the Civil War Era at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Brian Steel Wills: I was mostly trying to shine a light on these stories of individuals that went to war and didn’t come home and try to understand the full element of what those stories involved.
I guess I think back on a Georgia recruit who was spelling challenged, but he would talk about the “vakants” in the ranks, and he said that those folks would not be able to rejoin the circle of friends—and he couldn’t spell “circle” either—or be around the fireside. Those places would never be filled. That made me think that those individuals don’t need to be forgotten.
Chris Mackowski: The book contains so many stories. It was just incredible how many accounts you had in there. How did you pull together that much information?
BSW: One of the things you do through the years—and age is probably the biggest part of it because I’ve been around for a long time—is you accumulate letters and diaries and stories. I’ve written a number of books that have stories that I could connect this volume to. The closest and easiest one was the second book I wrote, called The War Hits Home, and several stories were found in it that talked about some of the incidents where things happened, like friendly fire or unfriendly fire, or just accidents like a tree falling on one of the men. I thought how much this sort of thing seems to have occurred, and I had it in my brain the notion that I could find every one that existed.
Of course, once you get more and more into it, and see just how pervasive the incidents were, whether they were disease—which I think we all understood that—but just the number of accidents and any number of things that occurred. I just wanted something to bring some kind of notice or attention to the people that went off to serve their country in the armed forces and didn’t come home, but they didn’t come home for reasons they certainly couldn’t have anticipated—not because they were killed in combat or in a charge. Yet the chair is just as empty; the table will no longer be filled. I felt like those individuals deserved to have their stories told as much as possible.
CM: People understood when they enlisted that there was a risk that they might get shot in battle, but nobody expects to not come home because they had some accident befall them.
BSW: I think again, we all know that anything can happen when you travel, especially back then. If you think about it, the numbers of people moving from point to point were massive. Train travel was dangerous. Any kind of movement across water might result in some kind of accident; it certainly wasn’t unheard of to have boiler explosions and ship wrecks.
And I tried to not only focus on the soldiers, but on the civilians as well. When you start putting individuals in facilities, whether it be factories or so-called “laboratories,” there are going to be casualties there, as well.
Even the precision of calling them “casualties” is problematic. Some of these people aren’t going to die and some are just maimed, but so many of them do die. So many people think of casualties and death as synonymous, but there is “killed,” “wounded,” “missing,” and all kinds of things that are casualties. When you think about the people who died, those deaths came from so many different sources, and so many of them were not anticipated, and the dangers weren’t appreciated.
CM: As I read the book and got through more of these accounts, there was a gravity to the text. I think you did a great job at not sentimentalizing or romanticizing or anything like that—you just let the incidents speak for themselves.
BSW: Well, I tried to do that because so many of these people have such a depth of anguish from the loss of people that they had served with or had gone to war with. And of course we know that so many of these units come from communities where they knew each other, sometimes quite closely before the war took place. I don’t know how many times I read the phrase, “He was my best friend,” or, “He was the best soldier of the unit,” or whatever. And to be struck down with an illness or have some untoward fatal accident occur—the poignancy of these things spoke for itself. I didn’t have to do too much to embellish that because it speaks for itself.
So many things were tragic, and yet some of the things were also foolish. They’re human, so these incidents don’t cover just one aspect of the human condition; they cover almost every aspect of the human condition.
CM: I guess there were a couple of incidents that seemed like the Civil War version of Jackass, where it was no wonder something happened to them.
BSW: I always think of the notion of “thinning the herd,” or “news of the weird,” where we hear that something occurred with somebody’s gun through their own miscalculations or mistakes. We like to think of people in history as separate from all of that, but they were people, and they made foolish decisions and sometimes didn’t think things through all the way.
I guess the one that was sort of morbidly funny was this diary that had a very short notice about a person on the Mississippi River that was on a mortar boat and was carrying an open keg of powder on his shoulder, but also happened to be smoking a cigar at the same time. How it didn’t dawn on him that that might not be a good choice to make, I don’t know. The journal’s author said that the mortar men were always so careless. Of course, you never know what the actual circumstances were, whether he had a stray spark or a mischievous friend that thought, “Well I’ll see what happens and call him,” and when he turned, the cigar came into contact with the powder. You never know some of those things in detail, but your imagination can take you where you want to go. But the mere fact that it did happen was certainly in the diary of this individual and recorded as such.
I guess one of the more interesting comments was from a general talking about soldiers who ended up getting killed or had comrades killed when they were pouring powder into shells. He said he “never knew of the original idiot who was actually doing it.” There were, of course, as you read in the book, many “original idiots” who got killed, too, but his point was that so often people do absurd things, and they aren’t necessarily the ones who pay the price, like bayonet practice that goes a little too far, a boxing match that goes awry, a person killed in a house of ill repute, any number of things. If you go down the list from murder to mayhem to accidents, it goes down the gambit. So many of these people were unfortunate, unlucky, or foolish. At least I tried to get in that book.
I didn’t try and go back and deal with every person’s service record or determine whether it actually occurred, but I did want to have these letters and diaries and newspaper accounts speak for themselves. In some cases, I had multiple sources that could say whether the details were more or less accurate as to what seems to have happened. But someone else can explore some of the individual accounts to see if it offers an accurate depiction.
In part two of my conversation with Brian tomorrow, we’ll talk about some of the research challenges he overcame in his efforts to document so many deaths.