Title: Living Hell: The Dark Side of the Civil War
Author: Michael C. C. Adams
No. of Pages: 304
Origins: Johns Hopkins University Press
Release Date: 13 March 2014
Bottom Line: Stark reminder that war is indeed hell
“Many Americans, argues Michael C. C. Adams, tend to think of the Civil War as glorious and full of pageantry. Millions of tourists flock to battlefields each year as vacation destinations, their perceptions of the war shaped by reenactors in blue and gray uniforms launching charges and countercharges over idyllic scenery while flags snap in the breeze. Living Hell brings us back to reality with a sober depiction of the cruelty, suffering, and almost unimaginable loss of life and property caused by this merciless war.
Perhaps because the United States has not seen conventional war on its own soil since 1865, the collective memory of its horror has faded, so that we have sanitized and romanticized even the experience of the Civil War. Neither film nor reenactment can fully capture the hard truth of the four-year conflict. Living Hell presents a stark portrait of the human costs of the Civil War and gives readers a more accurate appreciation of its profound and lasting consequences.
Adams examines the sharp contrast between the expectations of recruits versus the realities of communal living, the enormous problems of dirt and exposure, poor diet, malnutrition, and disease. He describes the slaughter produced by close-order combat, the difficulties of cleaning up the battlefields—where tens of thousands of dead and wounded often lay in an area of only a few square miles—and the resulting psychological damage survivors experienced.
Drawing extensively on letters and memoirs of individual soldiers, Adams assembles vivid accounts of the distress Confederate and Union soldiers faced daily: sickness, exhaustion, hunger, devastating injuries, and makeshift hospitals where saws were often the medical instrument of choice.
Inverting Robert E. Lee’s famous line about war, Adams suggests that too many Americans become fond of war out of ignorance of its terrors. Providing a powerful counterpoint to Civil War glorification, Living Hell echoes William Tecumseh Sherman’s comment that war is cruelty and cannot be refined.”
Thoughts: Mention the Civil War and most people will envision sweeping battle scenes, cavalry charges, the Rebel yell, and the theme song to Gone With the Wind. What they generally do not think of is the extreme hardships faced by soldier and civilian, North and South alike, the lasting damage done to the countryside, local economies, and to an entire generation’s psyche. Therein lies the importance of Michael C. C. Adams’ Living Hell.
It is a human trait to romanticize the most extreme tragedies. It is how humans recover from experiencing the worst we can inflict on each other. It was done after World War I and World War II and especially after the Civil War. We know war is awful, but we gloss over the true extent of its terribleness and focus instead on an idealized image of soldiers marching off to glory and returning, battered and filthy but alive, to a hero’s welcome. With its use of actual letters and first-person accounts of eyewitnesses, Living Hell walks readers through a soldier’s evolution from excited and eager recruit to physically disfigured and mentally damaged soldier and the lasting trauma for soldier and family members alike. It is a brutal picture of the disgusting chaos of the soldiers’ camps, the absolute horror wrought by new battle techniques and weaponry, the complete abandonment of any wartime conventions and the psychological impact of total war. He covers the unimaginable scenes in Army hospitals, the gruesome sites of the countryside after a battle, and much, much worse. It is as realistic a picture of what the Civil War was like as one can get, and it is not pretty.
To be fair, most people understand that war is never pretty, and the Civil War was as bad as it could get. However, what sets Living Hell apart is that Adams puts aside the rose-tinted glasses that comes with the passage of time to show the true hardships by using eyewitness documentation. He lets the soldiers and civilians speak for themselves, and it is a stark picture indeed.
Separated into sections such as camp life, battles, post-battle details, the challenges facing the injured, civilian life, and the mental damage from total war, Living Hell delves into the details of each main topic and does so without obscuring anything. This means that this book is most definitely not for the faint-of-heart or easily disturbed. Readers should be careful about eating before, during, or after reading any section because it is as gruesome as gruesome can get.
Every aspect of Living Hell is horrifying and yet so utterly fascinating. Adams’ use of soldiers’ own words is particularly effective, as they leave nothing to the imagination in their correspondence or diary entries. War is not sexy, and war is not kind. Anyone who thinks so needs to read Living Hell for an excellent look at the hellishness of modern warfare before, during, and long after the war’s end.