Writing Militarily

Sometimes a good story can miss the mark when we lack the minutia of details that can transport the reader or give our plot realism. Sometimes these details are elusive unless time has been spent living the life we wish to portray. Although a brief article on civil war or military parlance can’t make up for having lived it, I will outlay some things that I hope will be helpful in creating realistic scenes, dialogue, plots, and character arcs.

I have always been a military history buff, the American Civil War being my favorite area of research but most periods of wars have drawn my interest. I’ve also been both a Civil War and WWII reenactor for over ten years.

One thing, no matter what period one is writing about, it was probably an era of conflict. What we see in movies and television is often inaccurate or cliché. Until the Second World War introduced a large and permanent standing army, our wars were fought by volunteer armies raised from state levees and disbanded as soon as peace was achieved. This brings the type of movie character we are familiar with, the fatherly sergeant, the young and inexperienced privates, into conflict with a very real dynamic that existed between soldiers and the command structure used at the time. For the Civil War time period, picking one or two published journals like Hardtack and Coffee by John Billings or Company Aytch by Samuel Watkins will give you an idea of soldier life. Another great resource is The Life of Billy Yank and The Life of Johnny Reb by Bell Irvin Wiley.
Do not assume that the army organization and functionality has remained static. Organization and how armies were used changed with tactics and wars. Here’s a quick guide to the basic elements of an army unit. These exist in any branch of the army (cavalry, artillery).

For Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican American War, Civil War, and Spanish American War the basic element was the company. The reason for this is that fire is massed in a tight formation, two ranks. The smallest element in the company was the comrades in arms, a group of four men who made up a skirmish group.

The next formation up was the battalion, a grouping of companies under the second in command of a regiment. It is rare that this unit is separated from the regiment but a battalion could be sent off on a small mission where it is not expected to run into much resistance. Picket (a string of vedettes along a long line like on a river bank separating forces or spread out along a line of miles whose purpose is to be an early warning for the larger force behind it) and garrison duty would be the only reason a battalion might be separated from their regiment.

The primary unit of all of these time periods was the regiment, made up of 10 companies that march, bivouac, and fight together. Volunteer regiments (as opposed to regular army regiments) were raised by the states and federalized for national service. They retained their state designation and the governor of each state had the power to grant commissioned officers. Volunteers were raised from each county in the state, sometimes from specific counties in the state and the volunteers being formed into companies from those who volunteered from that county, so that one served with men one knew already. This was a consistent practice up to WWII. Officers and noncommissioned officers would be elected after the formation of each company or the captaincy of each company would be commissioned by the governor and other commissioned officers by the same process. When writing about soldiers in these time periods, it was the regiment that held their allegiance most and governed their daily lives.

The next unit of note was the brigade, made up of between three to four regiments. When reading about these various wars and battles, one often runs into the brigade being mentioned most as tactics governed the movements of brigade sized units about the battlefield.
The third and fourth unit was the division (made up of three to four brigades) and the corps (made up of three to four divisions). These are forces made up of thousands of men and controlled by the commander of the army.

The last organization is the army, a grouping together in a geographical theater of operations (a term meaning anything from a state to a region to an entire continent). An army was usually comprised of a variety of organizational schemes. For instance, as the civil war progressed and the need to control the vast armies grew, army commanders used a variety of methods to group regiments and brigades together. Up until 1862 the largest designation was the division or, as at Fredericksburg, Right, Center, and Left Grand Divisions made up of several divisions. After the Union disaster of Fredericksburg, Corps were formed and Union armies kept these designations and organization for the duration of the war. The Confederate forces used different means of organizing itself and never adopted the Corps structure.

Writing Militarily, how to write with the pre WWI military in mind

Writing Militarily, Pt. 2 Indian Wars to WWI

What the Civil War brought

Aside from the obvious settling of a question of what the United States meant to a country torn apart by competing sectionalism, the war and its aftermath brought us a sense of unification but also brought us many more questions left unanswered.

Chief of these has been the questions of race. The south, by force of arms, was subjugated and in many ways the fruits of what many lived through in the civil rights years of the 1960s was the unfettered zeal of Abolitionist forces in the north and in congress who enforced egalitarianism upon its own citizenry. The southern populace found itself leveled and at times even lorded over by those whom they had themselves subjugated for generations before.

Reconstruction in the south to the form of political and societal revenge, a natural feeling felt by many northerners who rightly blamed the south for the years of bloodletting. Instead of gradual emancipation or gradual and controlled integration of thousands of hitherto uneducated freed slaves into the body politic, the freedmen were franchised immediately into state and local politics, not to mention federal. To punish the south, blacks were not only given the vote and an equal voice but also found themselves in charge, elected by the body of freedmen over their former masters while their former masters found themselves bereft of wealth and unable to work their own land or able to afford to hire anyone.

As one former slave put it, “the bottom rail on top now.” This is an apt description for how we should understand reconstruction from both the freedmen’s point of view and those of the former confederacy. Enfranchised with the point of the bayonet, it was not a real freedom for the freedmen. While it helped to bring some sense of justice to northerners to see the haughty brought low, it built a sense of latent rage and militant extremism that found expression in the formation of the KKK, a secret society of former confederates who sought to drive the northern influences out and re-right the balance of their destroyed society. Using intimidation, the white southerners fought back.

This is not to condone the extra-legal actions of the minority but to grasp the real problem with reconstruction as a whole. It was not organic and as long as federal soldiers were around to enforce the gradual re-admittance of each southern state back into the union, the system as conceived from Andrew Johnson’s administration worked. It worked until the federal constabulary was pulled out as each state was admitted back. This is the real tragedy of the war and its aftermath. That real freedom was not condoned by the citizenry on their newly freed slaves but one of force. When force was removed, all that had been changed was reversed by an equally vengeful south.

The south should have freed its slaves before the war ended, allowing for an organic emancipation if they chose to fight. This is not as odd as it sounds even given the counter intuitive nature of serving ones oppressors for the chance at freedom. In the early days of the war, an all black regiment was raised in New Orleans and was formed for the express purpose of fighting for rights that were promised to them locally. These were formed under the confederate banner. Its members were all free blacks and volunteered in order to gain more influence in local politics be able to participate on par with free whites. This unit, though never firing a shot at any federal was eventually disbanded, but its core found its way into the federal army and did participate in battles for the union. This is but one case of what would seem to be an aberration. Why would any black willingly serve for the confederacy? Why indeed.

We have to understand that neither the north nor the south fought to end slavery or to retain it as a war goal. That this was to become an overt goal after the Emancipation Proclamation is now history. That both sides fought for reunification or for a separate country lends some credence to wrapping our heads around why any black would serve the confederacy. If the promise of freedom was offered, the slave had strong incentive to act. A cabal of confederate officers petitioned Jefferson Davis for offering emancipation and land to any slave who volunteered to serve the confederacy of their own free will. Thousands of slaves were laboring on entrenchments for the south already, pressed into service by the army and whose owners were compensated for their labor, but it was not willing labor.

Had slaves been allowed to serve for their freedom it is a tantalizing question to ponder how different the south would have looked even as the union forces the surrender of the southern armies and the south endures a subjugation. Would the now former soldiers, blacks and whites, had a different view of each other as well as their conquerors. For the blacks, freedom and equality of life was paramount, regardless of who gave it to them. That the union forces came to represent that freedom sometimes was a bitter pill as reluctant federal commanders often turned the runaways back or grudgingly allowed the vast caravans to follow them for protection. Many northern commanders were of similar opinion as their southern counterparts, that blacks were inferior in intellect and society. Until it became common practice to view slaves and freedmen as tools to be deprived of, the army had little use for the contrabands that streamed into their camps.

It is improbable that southerners would have seen their former slaves as anything approaching equality, a problem for those who sought to rehabilitate the south. The rush to extend freedoms to those who had never had it before and the expectation that they participate in the electorate who had never been allowed to be socialized into the american fabric of republican government, the vote became both a weapon and a danger to those who now could wield it. Much of our current understanding of race relations and the problems of southern acceptance of the now freedmen has much bearing on how these freedmen were enfranchised. It is also improbable that a more gradual process would have been allowed to take place, for the conquerors needed to show something for the blood and treasure expended in reuniting the union. A slow process would not have played out politically as it would have given too much back to the former rebels and delayed too long the freedoms paid for. Yet, this is exactly what needed to happen where southerners needed to extend freedom of their own accord and not by the bayonet. Had thousands of blacks actually fought and sacrificed for southern freedom, a freedom they would have been promised in payment for that service, we might not have the history that we have today when it comes to race.

But, this is only a thought.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad