The New York Times October 17, 2014
Several years ago, a thick sheaf of Civil War letters was discovered in an old barn in upstate New York. Most were sent by a Union soldier, Charles Freeman Biddlecom, to his wife, the former Esther Lapham. Now edited and published by Katherine M. Aldridge, who owns the barn, they provide a remarkably candid window into the outlook of an ordinary infantryman. They also caution us against exaggerating the affinity of common soldiers for the great causes — the Union and emancipation — that we now hold in such high regard.
Today we often remember Union soldiers as principled, articulate and ready to sacrifice their lives for something larger. The historians James McPherson and Chandra Manning each have written influential recent volumes articulating soldiers’ views: McPherson’s Union soldiers were “intensely aware of the issues at stake and passionately concerned about them”; they knew that they were playing roles in a transcendently important struggle, on which the future of the American nation would pivot. Likewise, the “commitment to emancipation” among Manning’s Union soldiers deepened and intensified as the war progressed. For them, “ideals like liberty, equality, and self-government” were not empty abstractions but core principles worth fighting to uphold.
The filmmaker Ken Burns spearheaded this heroic reassessment with his widely watched public television series on the Civil War in the early 1990s. Most memorably, Burns used the emotionally charged letter to “My very dear Sarah” from a Rhode Island infantryman, Sullivan Ballou, written in July 1861 just before the battle of Bull Run. Much as Ballou wanted to return to his loved ones unharmed and to see his sons grow to “honorable manhood,” he gave ultimate priority to his country. He and his generation owed a great debt to “those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution.” He was “willing — perfectly willing — to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.” Untold millions of television viewers, alerted that Ballou’s iconic letter was his last, have listened intently to its dramatic rereading, complete with stringed instruments in the background, tugging at our heartstrings.
Ballou’s noble and stoic valedictory makes for splendid theater, but the messy realities of war swept into the Army countless men whose commitment to big causes was far more muddled and erratic – men like Charles Biddlecom, who lived as a farmer in Macedon, N.Y., just east of Rochester.
On the face of it, Biddlecom might have been a promising candidate for Burns’s honor roll. He was educated, he wrote vivid prose, he was older than the average (born in 1832) and he came from a region where slavery was deplored and enthusiasm for reform was widespread. So one might expect Biddlecom to have embraced the Union cause for all the right reasons. But in his letters, we find that he saw no purpose in the war and considered himself a helpless pawn in an enormous kill-or-be-killed chess match.
Biddlecom first enlisted in May 1861, as a volunteer in the 28th New York Infantry. Suspecting that the “fuss” soon would be over, he wanted to rout the “southern whelps.” But his health deteriorated, and he was discharged before he saw combat.
Two years later, however, in the summer of 1863, Biddlecom was called back. The war had grown to proportions unimaginable in 1861. He and many other “poor forsaken conscripts” were assigned to rebuild the depleted ranks of the 147th New York, which had been decimated on the first day at Gettysburg. The re-formed regiment was stationed in a dismal part of Northern Virginia, already scarred by three years of warfare.
As the army went into winter quarters, Biddlecom was sickened by dysentery, afflicted by lice and miserably lonesome and homesick. He and three other men lived in a “little dog kennel,” about four feet high. In his darker moments he predicted cynically that the war would grind on inconclusively for 20 years, because “Lincoln and his miserable crew” could never bring it to a successful finish. Biddlecom also second-guessed the decision to go to war in the first place. Much as he hated slaveholders, he mused that it might have been “better in the end to have let the South go out peaceably and tried her hand at making a nation.”
Biddlecom longed to go home to rejoin his family. Some men, he observed, had been discharged who were “not a bit more disabled than I am,” and he vowed to follow their example. By spring, as the prospect of renewed fighting came closer, the trickle of deserters fleeing into the nearby mountains from the 147th increased. Most nights two or three men quietly absconded to join the euphemistic “Blue Ridge Corps,” and Biddlecom predicted that the regiment stood to lose 150 men. In some ways he sympathized with the deserters — he agreed that no conscript should have to serve longer than nine months — but he could not see himself “sneaking off.”
In early May 1864, Biddlecom and his regiment were thrown across the Rapidan River into the terrifying caldron of Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign. Ten days of fighting in the Wilderness and at Spotsylvania left his division “terribly cut up,” with half his own company killed or wounded, and others missing. By early June, barely 100 of the 550 men in his regiment who had started the campaign remained fit for duty.
Biddlecom initially hoped that Grant could bring the war to a prompt end, but six weeks of inconclusive bloodletting rekindled his cynicism. He dismissed as “bosh” all talk about “great Union victories.” Reports about the “pluck and courage” of the Union Army were “the worst kind of exaggeration.” The Army was “worn out, discouraged, [and] demoralized.” He admonished his wife, Esther, to reject “newspaper hokum” that depicted ordinary soldiers as patriotic. Men would fight to preserve their reputations, but “as for men fighting from pure love of country, I think them as few as white blackbirds.”
What motivated Biddlecom to continue fighting? Certainly not the high ideals depicted McPherson or Manning. It was in part personal. Convinced that he was the “black sheep” of his family and that most of his kinfolk “never gave me credit for being much of a man,” he carried a chip on his shoulder. He wanted to make it clear that he was “not an absolute failure in all things.” He was determined not to disgrace his parents or stigmatize his sons by “showing cowardice.” But, he insisted, he was neither a “Union Saver” nor a “freedom shrieker.” He rejected all high-flown rationalizations for the war effort — “to hell with the devilish twaddle about freedom.”
As late as August 1864, Biddlecom believed that the men in the Army would vote “four to one” against Lincoln. He resolved to support the president’s opponent, George B. McClellan, on grounds that wasting “more blood and treasure in this war will be productive of more evil to the white race than it will be of good to the black race.” He was content to allow slavery to “die a peaceful death,” even if it required 50 or 100 years.
As Union prospects brightened and the election approached, however, Biddlecom reversed himself and spurned the “copperhead ticket.” Suddenly, the soldier who was no “freedom shrieker” embraced the war “for freedom, [and] for equal rights.” On Election Day in November he sounded entirely unlike his old self, as he pontificated that the contest would decide “the future of American civilization.” It pitted “Lincoln and the universal rights of man” against “McClellan and another compromise with the Devil.” He heralded the outcome for affirming that “freedom shall extend over the whole nation.” The “greatest nation of Earth” would not bow down to “traitors in arms.”
So Biddlecom’s pithy letters convey a mixed message. Until the autumn of 1864, he disdained all ideological rationalizations for the Union war effort. But he also was a team player, and his team appears to have broken strongly toward Lincoln. The army, he decided, was “a very good school for hot heads such as I was.” Home influences may also have played a role — after all, the men in his regiment came from one of the most intensely Republican regions in the country.
The patriotic prose that Charles Biddlecom penned in November 1864 would have delighted Ken Burns. But we dare not forget the long and circuitous journey that finally landed him among the charmed circle of those Union soldiers whose ideas square with modern sensibilities.
Sources: Katherine M. Aldridge, ed., “No Freedom Shrieker: The Civil War Letters of Union Soldier Charles Biddlecom”; James McPherson, “For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War”; Chandra Manning, “When This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War.”
Daniel W. Crofts, a professor emeritus of history at The College of New Jersey, is completing a new book, entitled “Lincoln’s Other Thirteenth Amendment: Rewriting the Constitution to Conciliate the Slave South.”