Skip to main content

Young Innocents

July 2024
2min read

Bear in mind that this romantic viewpoint was by no means confined to the South. It was all but universal, and you can see it in the North as well as in Dixie. It is eminently visible in the history of any of the hundreds of volunteer regiments which wore the Federal blue; very strikingly so, at this moment, in an excellent new book, The Twentieth Maine , by John J. Pullen, which tells how a typical regiment was organized, what it did, and how its members reacted to the whole affair.

The Twentieth Maine was formed in 1862, mostly from small towns and backwoods areas in the state of Maine, and its recruits came to camp with the quaintest notions of what they were getting into. Discipline, in the beginning, was entirely nonexistent. The regiment’s first colonel was a starchy West Pointer named Adelbert Ames, and what he saw when he got to camp horrified him beyond measure. Instead of saluting, lanky privates leaning against trees would casually remark, “How d’ye do, Colonel?” when he came along. At guard mount, the officer of the day might show up in a cutaway coat and a silk hat—formal enough, if not exactly military—and when orders were issued the men would hold impromptu town meetings to discuss them and determine whether they ought to be obeyed. After his first inspection, Colonel Ames exploded wrathfully: “This is a hell of a regiment!” Then he set to work to put it into shape.

He succeeded admirably, and the Twentieth Maine became one of the most solid of Union combat outfits. It learned to salute and to obey orders and to appear on parade in proper uniform, and in the end it did a horrifying amount of very hard fighting—it was one of several Union regiments which claimed to have saved the day at Gettysburg, which was an occasion where the day needed saving repeatedly—and it served to the end of the war, counting among its veterans, finally, three winners of the Congressional Medal of Honor.

All in all, this regiment was typical; typical chiefly in that its members went off to war (like the nation that bore them) without the faintest conception of what was going to happen. They thought of war in the beginning as a sort of joint venture carried on by youthful heroes, who would picturesquely do fine things with great daring for flag and country; on their own level, they had the Jeb Stuart idea. They were caught up in something they did not understand, and what they would actually do was not at all like what they had bargained for when they enlisted.

They were, in short, a collection of young innocents, in which they precisely resembled most of their fellow countrymen, North and South alike. But what innocent people can do when they wage modern war can be rather terrifying, and in a small way Miss Emma LeConte has some testimony on the matter.

Sherman’s army which wrecked Columbia was made up of regiments exactly like this one. Somewhere along the way its men were taught that they would win the war by wrecking the Southern economy, which meant by destroying all of the means that kept the economy functioning. Do this with a poorly disciplined, inadequately indoctrinated army and you are apt to loose horror on the land. Between burning a farmer’s barn and killing his livestock (necessary, if total war is to be won) and destroying a city that has already been captured, there is a dividing line which is all too easily crossed if the men who come up to it are disillusioned romantics who have learned that anything goes.

The Twentieth Maine , by John J. Pullen. The J. B. Lippincott Company. 352 pp. $5.

This is not simply a matter for solemn head-shaking by one reading the story of the Civil War in the quiet of his study. The problem is still with us, raised by now to quadruple strength. Modern war, just dawning in the i86o’s, has come to its high noon—and we still have not thought our way through it. Subconsciously, we still approach the idea of war with the feeling that war can be limited and kept within some sort of restraints, which does not seem to be the case. Our ability to make war has developed much faster than our thinking about war. We still have the Jeb Stuart viewpoint, but in actions we tend to follow the pattern set by Sherman’s bummers.

The historian Carl L. Becker once remarked that America is a society which needs to re-examine its theory of itself. Somehow we have let that re-examination lag. A good place to begin might be with a study of the gap between theory and reality in the Civil War.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.