American Military Culture in the Civil War and Beyond

Endorsed by the Society for Military History

Thursday, April 2, 2020, 11:00 AM - 12:30 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Military; Public History and Memory; Social and Cultural


The Civil War served from 1861 until 1917 as the primary historical touchstone of American military culture. That dynamic formation drew definition from many sources. The internal structures and practices of the army and navy, state militia units, and veterans organizations like the Grand Army of the Republic or the United Confederate Veterans were constitutive, as were the complex relationships between such entities and the broader American society. This session will examine three case studies in the connections between Civil War experience and postwar developments in military culture. Each paper distills an established scholar's research for a book in progress. Jennifer M. Murray, a leading specialist in Civil War military culture and its legacies, will comment on the papers, and Lorien Foote, another distinguished authority in the field, will chair a discussion.
The papers focus on three different parts of the country and three different approaches to the reverberations of the Civil War. Barbara A. Gannon's contribution spotlights the South and the cultural formation known as the Lost Cause. She examines white southern celebration of Confederate martial achievement as a vindication of the underlying society. Professor Gannon challenges that narrative by analyzing the ways in which organized enforcement of slavery contributed to Confederate battlefield success. Her comparison of antebellum preparation, wartime outcomes, and postwar ideology measures the manipulation of history. John R. Neff's paper concentrates on the Midwestern metropolis of Chicago in the iconic 1871 fire. He interweaves enduring bonds and rivalries of veteran Civil War commanders from the regular army and the U. S. Volunteeers with the tensions between federal and state authority during the implementation of Reconstruction legislation designed to protect African American voters. His research reveals the weight of Civil War memory in a moment of postwar crisis. Thomas Brown's study of Zouaves notes their national popularity but concentrates on their opponents in the policymaking centers of the Northeast. He shows how the conjunction of theatrical and military performance that excited Zouave volunteers during the Civil War made the identity vulnerable to attack in the late nineteenth century. His treatment recovers the lost appeal of the Zouave and illuminates a profound change in conceptions of soldiering.
The session will address American military culture from the antebellum period into the early twentieth century while also highlighting the importance of fine-grained inquiry into such features of the Civil War as the Confederate cavalry, the Union high command, and the recruitment of infantry for both armies. The panelists hope the discussion will interest Civil War military historians and also cultural historians, Reconstruction historians, southern historians, urban historians, and gender historians.

Papers Presented

The Decline of American Zouaves

Zouave units are a familiar feature in narratives of the early Civil War, though those accounts usually attribute Zouave popularity to outlandish amateurism rather than the liberatory mash-up of stage and military performance that made the gender-bending exercise in ethnic appropriation an international sensation. The implication is that Zouaves were the casualty of a wartime national maturation or the battlefield vulnerability of their flamboyant uniforms. To the contrary, Zouave prestige emerged intact from the Civil War. Veterans clung to their Zouave identity, and new Zouave militia units formed, including black companies in the postemancipation South. Zouaves continued to flourish in circuses and vaudeville. Zouaves also remained a famous part of the French army, though temporarily diminished after the Franco-Prussian War and fall of Napoleon III. The gradual exclusion of Zouaves from American military culture was a postwar collaboration of the U.S. Army and its allies in the militia reform movement. The army co-opted Zouave tactics, but interstate drill competitions placed Zouave units in a separate category from infantry. The gender and ethnic fluidity of troupes such as Captain Keller's American Zouave Girls and the Peking Zouaves differed radically from the ideals of manhood and Anglo-Saxon destiny promoted by martial champions of the strenuous life. The notion that soldiers were performers conflicted with an idealization of military service as the epitome of authenticity. The fate of the Zouaves set the pattern for the turn-of-the-century army monopolization of what had been during the Civil War a decentralized and diverse military culture.

Presented By
Thomas J. Brown, University of South Carolina

Deconstructing the Lost Cause: Enforcing a Slave Regime and the Origin of Confederate Military Superiority

It may be apocryphal, but Abraham Lincoln purportedly told Gen. Irwin McDowell that he should not wait to train his army; instead, he should engage the Confederate Army since “you are green, it is true, but they are green, also; you are all green alike.” Because of Lincoln’s pressure, McDowell moved his army into Virginia in July 1861, fought, and lost, a battle near Bull Run Creek and the town of Manassas. True story or not, this assessment reflected an erroneous calculation of the military capability of each side. While the Confederate Army was composed mostly of volunteer units made up of amateurs, similar to Union forces, the nature of antebellum American military culture gave the Confederate forces a decided advantage. Southern societies maintained more effective local military forces to police their brutal slave regime. The free states had no such need and went to war with less efficient military units.

This paper represents one part of my broader effort to reinterpret Civil War military history and challenge the persisting Lost Cause myth that Confederate victories demonstrated the superiority of their society. In one way, Confederate supporters were correct; holding 4 million souls to forced labor required a militarized society—a decided advantage when war came. For example, confederate cavalry dominated Union mounted forces, a superiority rooted in Southern riders experience in nightly slave patrols viciously punishing errant slaves. Establishing the relationship between the cruelty of prewar slavery and wartime military success deconstructs the most pernicious myth of the Lost Cause.

Presented By
Barbara Ann Gannon, University of Central Florida

A Man Victorious: Reflections on the Scholarship, Teaching, and Mentorship of John R. Neff

On January 30, 2020, John R. Neff, Associate Professor of History and Director the Center for Civil War Research, University of Mississippi, passed away suddenly leaving his colleagues, students, family and friends grieving. John had been scheduled to appear on this panel to present his most recent work on Civil War memory and the 1871 Chicago Fire; instead, we will honor the life and legacy of this good man and fine scholar. The title of this tribute is an homage to his brilliant study, Honoring the Civil War Dead: Commemoration and the Problems of Reconciliation. He identified the “Cause Victorious,” as opposed to the Confederate “Lost Cause,” as it was articulated in commemorations of the Union dead after the Civil War. An examination of John’s contribution to Civil War Studies, the University of Mississippi, and his colleagues and students demonstrates that his life, though short, was “victorious.”

Presented By
Barbara Ann Gannon, University of Central Florida

Session Participants

Chair: Lorien Foote, Civil War, War and Society
Lorien Foote is the Patricia and Bookman Peters Professor in History at Texas A&M University and the Director of Graduate Studies for the history department. She is the author of four books, including The Yankee Plague: Escaped Union Prisoners and the Collapse of the Confederacy (UNC Press, 2016) and The Gentlemen and the Roughs: Manhood, Honor, and Violence in the Union Army (NYU Press, 2010). She has published numerous articles and essays on the cultural, intellectual, and military history of the American Civil War. She is the creator and principal investigator of a digital humanities project that visualizes the escape of 3000 Union prisoners of war and includes contributions from undergraduate researchers at three universities:

Presenter: Thomas J. Brown, University of South Carolina
Thomas J. Brown is professor of history at the University of South Carolina, where he has taught since 1996. He is author of Dorothea Dix, New England Reformer (Harvard University Press, 1998), Civil War Canon: Sites of Confederate Memory in South Carolina (University of North Carolina Press, 2015), and Civil War Monuments and the Rise of Martial America (University of North Carolina Press, forthcoming 2019). He was co-editor of Hope and Glory: Essays on the Legacy of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment (University of Massachusetts Press, 2001) and editor of The Public Art of Civil War Commemoration: A Brief History with Documents (Bedford/Saint Martin's, 2004), Reconstructions: New Perspectives on the Postbellum United States (Oxford University Press, 2006), and Remixing the Civil War: Meditations on the Sesquicentennial (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011). His paper proposal draws on research with University of South Carolina colleague Carol Harrison, a specialist in the history of nineteenth-century France and European Catholicism, for a book tentatively entitled Zouaves! International Military Fashion and Performance.

Presenter: Barbara Ann Gannon, University of Central Florida
Barbara A. Gannon is currently an associate professor of history at the University of Central Florida (UCF). She received her B.A., Magna Cum Laude, from Emory University in Atlanta, an M.A. from George Washington University in Washington D.C., and a PhD from The Pennsylvania State University. Previously, she worked for the US Government Accountability Office as a defense analyst. Much of her thinking on her current project related to reassessing the Confederate military effort as a product of a slave regime’s security requirements is based on the expertise she obtained analyzing defense issues for Congress. After completing her dissertation and leaving the government, she published The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic (UNC Press, 2011), an examination of the black and white members of the Union Army’s largest veterans’ organization. This book received the Wiley-Silver Prize (University of Mississippi) for the best first book on the Civil War, was recognized with an honorable mention by the Lincoln Prize Committee 2012 (Gilder Lehrman Institute), and was a finalist for the Jefferson Davis Prize (American Civil War Museum). She recently completed a second book, Americans Remember their Civil War (Praeger, 2017), which examines Civil War memory from 1866 until today. In addition, she co-authored Pennsylvania: A Military History (Westholme 2016) with Christian B. Keller and the late William A. Pencak. She is currently working on two distinct research projects. The first, the broader effort mentioned in her paper proposal examines the roots of Confederate military effectiveness as a product of a slave society. The second project involves African Americans who served in World War I, specifically men of the pioneer infantry—a hybrid combat and support unit. She has published a number of articles and essays related to Civil War memory, veterans, and military history. She has been invited to present her work to a wide variety of academic and public audiences. She is on the editorial board of Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies and Civil War History. She is a co-principal investigator on the Department of Veterans Affairs, National Cemetery Administration’s Veterans Legacy Program. Currently, she is the coordinator for UCF’s Community Veterans History project, an oral history project that records the experience of Central Florida’s veterans. She is a veteran of the United States Army.

Commentator: Jennifer M. Murray, Oklahoma State University
Dr. Jennifer M. Murray is a military historian, with a specialization in the American Civil War, in the Department of History at Oklahoma State University. In addition to delivering hundreds of Civil War battlefield tours, Murray has led World War I and World War II study abroad trips to Europe. Murray’s most recent publication is On A Great Battlefield: The Making, Management, and Memory of Gettysburg National Military Park, 1933-2013, published by the University of Tennessee Press in 2014. Murray is also the author of The Civil War Begins, published by the U.S. Army’s Center of Military History in 2012. She is currently working on a full-length biography of George Gordon Meade, tentatively titled Meade at War. Murray is a veteran faculty member at Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute and a coveted speaker at Civil War symposiums and roundtables. In addition, Murray worked as a seasonal interpretive park ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park for nine summers (2002-2010).