Embattled Courage

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Only in the mid-twentieth century has it been widely understood that courage is a cultural virtue which changes its meaning from age to age. Courage is still often equated with fearlessness, but Plato said that fearlessness must be combined with compassion, justice, and moderation to be called courage. Gerald F. Linderman demonstrates that Americans in the 1850’s had developed a code of fearless courage based on the duel: They prized the “cool courage” of the gentleman who could face a pistol or a ruffian without any display of concern, much less fear. Following the demands of this code and its relentless endorsement by the public, including their families and friends, the volunteers of 1861 exposed themselves willingly to enemy fire. This code, Linderman contends, lay at the foundation of Civil War military tactics as much as did the theories of Henri de Jomini taught at the United States Military Academy at West Point or the experience of the Mexican War.

Even professional officers subscribed to this concept of courage, though they knew that mass infantry warfare required, not would-be gentlemen, but ordinary men who could be formed through discipline, pride, and fear into soldiers. Volunteers could not, however, be trained swiftly along the lines of the regular army, not solely because of their numbers but also because they and the public rejected the process as undemocratic and unbecoming. Enthusiastic volunteers from North and South alike believed that courage was a matter of character and will. The war, for them, was less a contest of systems and ideologies than a test of courage, and they forced their ideas upon the officers whom they elected.

The chivalric romanticism of the combatants apparent in the gaudy uniforms and florid speeches became manifest throughout the armies, North and South. Had the volunteers had their way, they would all have been knight-errants, besting their opponents in single combat before the gaze of friends, parents, and admiring ladies. Holding firmly to their notions of propriety and individualism, they undermined all the efforts at discipline by which their officers tried to make raw recruits into soldiers who would follow orders without questioning.

Commanders were able to form effective units and fight as an army only by manipulating the code of manly courage. They appealed, not to political causes or to patriotism, but to bravery, duty, self-respect, and the opportunity to prove one’s manhood. They could win their troops’ respect only through personal example. The resulting casualties ultimately forced soldiers and officers alike to modify their beliefs. The public, however, was slow to realize the change. Even at the end of the war, there was a general cultural lag in this respect. The public still valued “cool courage” above proper caution, endurance, patience, good weapons, and plentiful supplies. Consequently, a valuable lesson was soon forgotten.

To an extent almost incomprehensible today, the widespread belief in foolhardy courage as the supreme value remained dominant past 1914; it was only slowly changed after the machine gun had ripped apart the serried ranks of charging soldiers and artillery had pounded the miserable trench-bound armies into an awareness of the meaning of cannon fodder. Officers of the Great War nevertheless continued to defend their use of mass formations in the belief that individual soldiers would seek shelter if deprived of the example of comrades and allowed to believe that efforts to survive would not be observed. The change in attitude...

(The entire section is 1457 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

AB Bookman’s Weekly. LXXIX, June 29, 1987, p. 2906.

American History Illustrated. XXII, November, 1987, p. 10.

Choice. XXV, September, 1987, p. 206.

The Christian Century. CIV, October 7, 1987, p. 866.

The Guardian Weekly. August 30, 1987, p. 18.

Kirkus Reviews. LV, March 1, 1987, p. 354.

The New York Times Book Review. XCII, July 5, 1987, p. 67.

The New Yorker. LXIII, September 14, 1987, p. 135.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXI, March 13, 1987, p. 78.

The Washington Post Book World. XVII, August 2, 1987, p. 4.