Review- Beatty, “The Citizen-Soldier”


John Beatty, “The Citizen-Soldier” (1879) – The knot at the heart of all Civil War memoirs is that the contrast between the story of a war — full of blood, pain, failure, comedy deriving from all of these things, and other messy human realities — in language that a late-19th century American publisher (and audience) would find acceptable. Ulysses Grant had help from his friend, Mark Twain, though even his written orders show the lucid, forceful prose quality that make his memoirs a classic. Lost Cause propagandists like Jefferson Davis and Jubal Early could more easily pitch themselves to the cheap sentimental romanticism that rhetoric of the era encouraged than could Union people and abolitionists (though lord knows both tried).

John Beatty, an Ohioan who rose to Brigadier-General over the course of the war, created a classic with a consistent voice and a wry critical eye. He saw heavy action at Stone River and Chickamauga, but for the most part he talks about marching and camp life. If language is generally inadequate for the experience of battle (though there have been some decent tries), it can do wonders with the display of humanity that is an army on the move, and Beatty’s language is keenly suited for the Army of the Cumberland as it marches through Tennessee and parts of Alabama and Georgia.

His battle descriptions are decent but the real visceral stuff he packs in surrounds food, cold, exhaustion, and smells. He records the songs the men sing (seemingly all of them some genre of ethnic impersonation or another- German, Irish, and French as well as the imitations of black peoples we’re familiar with) and amusing incidents. He talks about the endless politicking. At first this is mostly between officers; seemingly ever ambitious man from Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois saw the war more as an opportunity to make connections than anything else. But eventually a different kind of politics takes hold amongst the men- over the course of the war, you see them come to see themselves as a liberating army, and Beatty takes pride in that (and castigated both dithering, soft generals like Buell and domestic dissidents in harsh terms).

Neither Beatty nor his men are exactly “woke” — black dialect humor abounds — but he (and, in a rough way, seemingly many of his men) are deadly serious civic republicans. Beatty can be humorous but that’s a flip-side to his deeply-held belief in both preserving a union and creating genuinely republican institutions for everyone in it… and with his frustrations with both the rebels and those on his own side who won’t take the war seriously — who see it as a means for career advancement or a temporary inconvenience or whatever. The story of the Union in the Civil War was, in many respects, the story of deeply imperfect people trying — and in more ways than one would expect, succeeding — to be equal to an epochal historical change. Beatty’s book is a great look at what living that change was like. ****’

Review- Beatty, “The Citizen-Soldier”

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