The War for the Common Soldier

How Men Thought, Fought, and Survived in Civil War Armies

By Peter S. Carmichael

404 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 31 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-6403-3
    Published: February 2021
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-4309-0
    Published: December 2018
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-4310-6
    Published: November 2018
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-7878-6
    Published: November 2018

Littlefield History of the Civil War Era

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Awards & distinctions

2018 NYMAS Civil War Book Award, New York Military Affairs Symposium

How did Civil War soldiers endure the brutal and unpredictable existence of army life during the conflict? This question is at the heart of Peter S. Carmichael's sweeping new study of men at war. Based on close examination of the letters and records left behind by individual soldiers from both the North and the South, Carmichael explores the totality of the Civil War experience--the marching, the fighting, the boredom, the idealism, the exhaustion, the punishments, and the frustrations of being away from families who often faced their own dire circumstances. Carmichael focuses not on what soldiers thought but rather how they thought. In doing so, he reveals how, to the shock of most men, well-established notions of duty or disobedience, morality or immorality, loyalty or disloyalty, and bravery or cowardice were blurred by war.

Digging deeply into his soldiers' writing, Carmichael resists the idea that there was "a common soldier" but looks into their own words to find common threads in soldiers' experiences and ways of understanding what was happening around them. In the end, he argues that a pragmatic philosophy of soldiering emerged, guiding members of the rank and file as they struggled to live with the contradictory elements of their violent and volatile world. Soldiering in the Civil War, as Carmichael argues, was never a state of being but a process of becoming.

About the Author

Peter S. Carmichael is the Robert C. Fluhrer Professor of Civil War Studies, director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, and author of previous books, including The Last Generation.
For more information about Peter S. Carmichael, visit the Author Page.


“Carmichael’s deep description of these individuals' experiences . . . complicate[s] in compelling ways our ideas about American men at arms during the Civil War. . . . Truly eye-opening.”—Journal of the Civil War Era

“In eloquent and elegant prose, Peter S. Carmichael examines the experience of war for the enlisted soldiers of the Union and Confederate armies. . . . The power and beauty of Carmichael’s writing come from his ability to build drama, reveal pathos, and provide texture to the war experience of his disparate group of soldiers.”—Journal of Southern History

"Fundamentally alters the trajectory of the literature."—Civil War Times Illustrated

“Carmichael goes deeply into his sources. . . His search for authentic voices is successful. . . . [and points] his readers in interesting, sensitive directions. . . a powerful addition to getting to the ‘real story.’”—Civil War Book Review

“A much-needed update of the experience of the Civil War's fighting men on both sides. . . . He illustrates his main points with extensive quotations from primary sources plus a variety of contemporary illustrations that significantly add to the context. Carmichael is both an experienced author and a versatile presenter, and it shows; though the main text is just over 300 pages, his presentation has both breadth and depth. It is, in all, a major achievement.”—Choice

“Carmichael’s work goes a long way toward helping those who might support, or participate in, future conflicts to understand how their predecessors met and overcame significant challenges when called to face their own iterations of injustice.”—H-Net Reviews