Book Review: Fighting Means Killing: Civil War Soldiers and the Nature of Combat

Fighting Means Killing: Civil War Soldiers and the Nature of Combat
By Jonathan M. Steplyk
University Press of Kansas, 2018, $22.95, paperback.

Reviewed by Kevin Pawlak

The American Civil War is America’s deadliest war. While two-thirds of the war’s approximately 650,000 dead lost their lives from disease, the remaining third died on the battlefield at the hands of enemy soldiers. Jonathan Steplyk’s 2018 work looks at the soldiers who did the killing during the Civil War and, more broadly, Civil War combat from a soldier’s eye perspective.

Steplyk posits that much of the focus on battles and their results have been on the soldiers who die in combat but not those who kill. “[K]illing on the battlefield,” he says, “provided one of the primary means” to end the war, preserve the United States, and end slavery (5). As such, this book argues that most soldiers, Federal and Confederate, “positively affirmed and accepted killing the enemy as part of their military duty and a necessity for their respective causes to prevail” (7).

Fighting Means Killing begins by placing the Civil War’s violent combat within the context of earlier violence seen throughout the United States. Before stepping onto the battlefields of the Civil War, Americans were familiar with firearms and human mortality.

Once on the killing field, soldiers had to navigate the chaos of battle and become accustomed to taking human life. Training and drill did not prepare them for this but the tactics they used–closely packed lines of battle–and the battle smoke that consumed one’s aim made killing more palatable to citizen soldiers. Soldiers shot to hit their enemies, though they were rarely cold-blooded killers.

Steplyk offers a multifaceted look at the men squeezing the trigger and their motivations for doing so and how they felt about it. Soldiers talked about killing in their letters home and in postwar writings as they sought “to define the taking of life in their own terms” (89). The book also features chapters on hand-to-hand fighting–a rarity, Steplyk affirms–sharpshooters, and how race bred violence on the battlefield.

This study takes the reader from the war’s first notable death–Elmer Ellsworth–to its last–Abraham Lincoln and fills a niche in the growing literature of killology. Much of the focus on the Civil War has been about the killed, not the killers. Steplyk provides a more-than-adequate first step in that direction.

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