Mentalités meet Minie balls in this study of the Old South’s romantic “honor culture” and its collapse into disillusionment.
“You ought to be delighted at my occasionally leaving you,” wrote a Confederate officer to his spouse on riding off to war, “for it shows me more plainly than anything else that you are my wife indeed.” The battlefield was the place to test and earn honor, the hearth the place to enshrine it: such notions, asserts debut author Berry (History/ Univ. of North Carolina, Pembroke), were central to the “hypermasculinized” culture of the South, which prized women but didn’t find much for them to do apart from serve as vessels of civilization. Working with a body of letters and diaries, Berry explores the emotional world of Southern soldiers, who went off to fight full of high ideas about warfare and womenfolk but returned from four years of bloodshed and starvation with a less glamorous view of things. Those poignant documents are immediate and revealing. One Alabama soldier who later died in combat, for instance, wrote to his wife that he and his comrades “are hardly allowed to sigh at the fall of our friends and relatives, and if we do happen to shed a tear secretly, it is soon dried up to make room for someone else.” Berry’s treatment of the documents is respectful but dispassionate, as when he dryly observes that men, “as much as women, depended on members of the opposite sex to validate and make meaningful their struggles and successes, to aid, comfort, and believe in them, even and especially when self-belief began to fade or fail”—as it did, Berry writes, when the Southern fighters discovered that the creed of death before dishonor carried a contradiction: death was dishonor, for “how much nobility is there in dying of dysentery?”
Lively reading, no, but a useful contribution to the scholarly literature.