Book Review: J.A. Frank & G.A. Reaves, “Seeing the Elephant”: Raw Recruits at the Battle of Shiloh (Westport, Conn., 1989)

This excellent book examines the morale, attitudes and experience of Confederate and Union soldiers who fought at the Battle of Shiloh. It follows their journey from enlistment and training in 1861 at the start of the US Civil War, to their first experience of combat, ‘seeing the elephant’, at Shiloh in April 1862.

The Battle of Shiloh, fought between Union and Confederate Forces in Tennessee on the 6th and 7th April 1862, was one of the 364 battles fought during the US Civil War.[1] The outcome was credited as a Union victory with Major General Ulysses S. Grant, and reinforcements under Brigadier General Don Carlos Buell, repulsing attacks of Generals Albert Sidney Johnston and P. G. T. Beauregard. The battle has three distinctive features. Firstly, it was the biggest engagement in the Civil War to that date with 90,000 combatants directly involved. Secondly, it was one of the bloodiest actions of the conflict with over a quarter of those engaged becoming causalities (compared to an average of 9% in other battles).[2] Finally, the majority of soldiers that fought the battle had never seen combat before. Based on figures for the order of battle for Confederate and Union forces and using figures by Frank and Reaves, it is possible to estimated that of the 238 artillery batteries, infantry regiments and Calvary formations engaged, 195 (82%) were ‘green’ in military parlance (they stated 160 units).[3]

 

Based on these three features, the authors seek to examine the ‘human factor in war’, specifically investigating the impact of ‘seeing the elephant’, 19th Century army jargon for witnessing and participating in battle, had on the attitudes and expectations on soldiers.[4] In particular, the book seeks to examine what factors were most important to their morale (i.e. will to fight) over the course of their military journey to the battle. Frank and Reaves do this by setting their investigation within the longitudinal parameters of the campaign that lead up to Shiloh. In particular, they investigate the chronological progression of soldiers’ attitudes and views, as expressed by his words and deeds and how these changed over distinct phases of the combatants’ military experience through enlistment and training in late 1861, campaigning during the winter of 1861/2, to approaching battle and finally, reflections on the battle and its legacy.

 

Their assessment of morale of their Civil War soldiers is based on recent works of “military sociology and combat psychology” by social scientists like Samuel Stouffer, S.L.A. Marshal, Maurice Janowitz and Edward Shils.[5] Frank and Reaves have used the findings of these social scientists, for example, that morale is enhanced by good leadership and close personal interpersonal relationships, to evaluate what motivated and sustained their 19th Century subjects. They developed 76 questions to interrogate the historical records of 450 fighters whom they identified left historical records such as letters, diaries or retrospective memoirs. They used the evidence of 381 individuals whose testimony could answer at least 10 of their questions and this approach sought to avoid an ‘anecdotal account’ and give their conclusions some scientific rigour.[6]

 

The authors contend that the recruits were motivated by personal duty, moral obligation to defend ‘home’ and a sense of patriotism.[7] Northerners and Southerners alike viewed their voluntary enlistment as a contract with the army, community and country. They gave service but expected fair treatment by the army, support from their home communities and recognition by their country. Units were social and political homogeneous units raised, funded and filled from largely rural and agrarian areas and these “neighbour armies” had a high level of community engagement, identity and pride. This bond between regiment and community, the authors argue, formed the emotional underpinning of combat motivation and was the soldiers’ support system while they reconciled their egalitarian beliefs with the challenges of military discipline and training. High levels of literacy meant the link between home and soldier was maintained by frequent uncensored exchanges of letters and also an uncensored press that carried correspondence from the front.

 

Frank and Reaves challenge long held reasons for why recruits’ joined and fought. They argue the recruits on both sides were politically literate and engaged in the struggle. Union soldiers fought for democratic government and not against slavery, the writers noting that Northerners expressed a much higher level of racist and pro slavery notions than Southerners.[8] They argue that Confederate soldiers were motivated by defending themselves from the threat of Yankee invasion not as the ‘gendarmerie of racial control’.[9]

 

Once in uniform most, men adapted to army life.[10] Officers-men relations were positive as officers were elected by the ranks.[11] Men on active service continued to communicate with home and news, support and engagement from their community was an important factor that kept them serving. Where men found their loved ones were suffering because they were with the colours depressed them and they cursed their local communities for not supporting the families of soldiers.[12]

 

When soldiers finally did ‘see the elephant’ their responses are mixed. Frank and Reaves point out that Shiloh was fought in a very restricted geographical area with the battlefield cut off on two sides by rivers making manoeuvre impossible which consequently funnelled 90,000 men into a small area of around 2.5km across. The restricted battlefield, close order tactics and new weapons, such as the rifled musket and Minié ball, made the attritional two day battle carnage.[13] As a result, the experience of many soldiers was an obscure “cameos of seemingly disconnected events”.[14] Men reacted to the sights, sounds and the emotions of the battle differently. Many experienced fear, some deserted but most stayed and fought. The authors attribute this courage of many to fight rather than flight to the nearness of comrades in dense formations and the recruits’ patriotism and strong moral commitment.[15]

 

Robert Conner

Men had different responses to battle, which both enhanced and depressed their morale. Unit pride rose considerably after the engagement with many men assessing their unit’s performance as positive and taking pride in this achievement or defending it from critics.[16] The assessment of most generals by men was negative, most men feeling the generals exerted no control of the battle; on the Union side Grant was especially blamed.[17]

 

The methodology in this study is novel. It seeks to give a quantitative basis for historical testimony to try and get away from the anecdotal nature of much historical study.  This approach is very useful, for instance giving a quantitative basis for measuring change in views and comparing the perspectives of combatants on the different sides (for example, views on slavery). However, the basis for the evaluation of the sources to which the authors refer is not covered in detail in the book. Given they are using modern sociological and psychological research to assess historical sources, it would have been useful to have known what things they were seeking in their research. For example, they said they set 76 questions to interrogate historical records but these questions are not set out anywhere in the book.

 

There is another danger with the authors’ methodological approach. The authors assess the morale of their civil war subjects by relying on the conclusions of post-World War 2 social scientists that based their findings by observing the conduct and performance of soldiers in the Second World War and subsequent conflicts. They are assuming that these modern deductions can be retrospectively applied to a historical period 80 years before. Though there are similarities between the 19th century Civil War soldier and 20th century serviceman, such as both coming from largely democratic political traditions with a free press, there are many differences in the nature, structure and values of their respective societies. While the work of the post 1945 sociologists and psychologists may have applicability for combat motivation and morale of Civil War combatants, the application of modern conclusions to explain historical behaviour needs to be done with care and sensitivity. This is not something that the authors investigate in great detail.

 

Related to this, the book could have done with a profile of the soldiers whose letters, diaries and memoirs they used. There is nothing to give an indication of the social, economic, geographical or ethnic background of the contributors. This is important to assess whether the works cited can be regarded as representative of the soldiers who fought at Shiloh. For example, did the sources the authors use show a representative mix of Union/Confederate soldiers, from urban or rural backgrounds who were involved in manual or non-manual work? The problem of representativeness arises in First World War historiography when the majority of sources which historians have access to tend to be disproportionally middle class as people of this social class tended to be better educated, have a tradition of diary and letter writing.

 

A final element which could have been useful would have been a description of nature, social relations and structure of America society in 1861. The book alludes to the local connections between units and recruits and how community identity was important. However, the book does not give a broad idea of America just before the war. For example, it would have been useful to get an idea of the levels of literacy among the population at large. The suggestion from the book is that among recruits joining in 1861, companies contained very small numbers of illiterates but it is not clear whether this was representative of US society or just those units.[18]

 

These caveats aside, the book is excellent at giving an idea of how attitudes and expectations of soldiers changed from their enlistment, life on active service and finally in combat. It concluded that after the battle, nine out of ten men, who expressed an opinion were determined to see the conflict through to victory.[19] What then motivated them to fight on? The authors suggest that the conclusions of the post-World War Two social scientists that men fought for their mates did not apply to the Shiloh volunteers. The authors believed that patriotism remained a major motivator for Confederate or Union but the tone changed to a more defensive tone, such as stressing the protection of home. Whereas two thirds of men had voiced lofty principled motives in their patriotism, after the battle this declined by half.[20] Also, hatred towards the enemy increased dramatically with five times as many men expressing such sentiments after the Battle than before.[21] The authors argue the main motivator for soldiers to keep on fighting after the Battle was a sense of duty. They suggested this broad concept merged notions of self-esteem, obligation to comrades, loyalty to one’s community and country.[22] They concluded by saying that their project had begun that ‘seeing the elephant’ would be such a devastating experience that they would be forever transformed by its horrors but that the experience of battle did not change men as much as they would have thought and they remained largely the same citizen soldiers as they had before the battle. [23]

 

 

Notes: 

[1] See Staff of the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission , Civil War Sites Advisory Commission Report on the Nation’s Civil War Battlefields, 1993, https://www.nps.gov/abpp/cwsac/cws0-1.html.

[2] J.A. Frank & G.A. Reaves, “Seeing the Elephant”: Raw Recruits at the Battle of Shiloh (Westport, Conn., 1989), p.1

[3] Ibid., pp.1-7.

[4] Ibid, p.2.

[5] S.A Stouffer et al. The American Soldier: Combat and Its Aftermath, Vols.1&2 (Princeton, 1949). S.L.A. Marshall, Men Against Fire (New York, 1947). E.A. Shils & M. Janowitz, ‘Cohesion and Disintegration in the Wehrmacht in World War II’, Public Opinion Quarterly 12 (Summer 1948).

[6] J.A. Frank & G.A. Reaves, “Seeing the Elephant”: Raw Recruits at the Battle of Shiloh (Westport, Conn., 1989), p.2.

[7] Ibid., pp.19, 37, 179.

[8] Ibid., p.34.

[9] Review, M.R. Cain, Civil War History 36:4 (12/1990), pp.351-352.

[10] Frank & Reaves, “Seeing the Elephant…”, p.47.

[11] Ibid., pp.52-3.

[12] Ibid., pp.54-61.

[13] Ibid., pp.89-91.

[14] Ibid., p.92.

[15] Ibid., pp.138-140.

[16] Ibid., pp.128-140.

[17] Ibid., pp.140-146.

[18] Ibid., pp.20-21.

[19] Ibid., p.173.

[20] Ibid., p.173.

[21] Ibid., p.177.

[22] Ibid., p.179.

[23] Ibid., p.181.