Water and Alexander Rose’s _Men of War_

Last week, in History 103—yes, that class again—we were discussing the first half of the chapter on Gettysburg in Alexander Rose’s Men of War (2016). I’m ambivalent about Rose’s discussion of this battle because I think he overstates his case on several occasions. To name one example, when he explains why the “default tactic of Civil War combat was the straightforward assault,” he resorts partly to a cultural explanation that seems exaggerated to me:

The widespread acceptance of high losses was partly due to the belief that the primary intent of battle was not to kill the enemy while minimizing your own casualties . . . but to endure startling (to us) casualties in order to achieve victory. A willingness to suffer, rather than inflict, high casualties was considered evidence of a muscularly Christian and heroic masculine will to win, not of lamentably poor command, bad planning, flawed execution, and idiotic decision-making, as we might assume today.[i]

While Rose provides many citations to explain why generals were more eager after the Napoleonic era to seek battle and smash the enemy in costly encounters, he doesn’t produce any sources to support the argument that common soldiers embraced high casualties as a measure of their will to win. Clearly, soldiers were proud of their regiments’ achievements, especially if they had proved especially costly. For instance, after the Battle of Fredericksburg, members of the 5th New Hampshire aggressively repeated the claim (much contested by other units) that they had made it closer to the infamous stone wall than any other Northern regiment. This accomplishment was no doubt dear to them because it came at the high cost of about 160 casualties out of almost 270 men engaged. But in the immediate aftermath of the battle, there was very little sign among survivors of that muscular Christianity or heroic masculinity which sought to suffer rather than inflict casualties. Instead, the men were appalled by the dismal leadership that had led to so many pointless deaths.[ii] Rose’s argument, then, seems a bit hard to swallow. I must admit, though, that I appreciate his willingness to think about culture in this context as well as his assumption that Civil War soldiers did not see the world as we do. But, still. . . .

That being said, the section on Gettysburg is well and vividly written. It is not for the faint of heart; almost every page is splattered with blood and descriptions of mayhem. Even if I don’t always agree with the arguments, they are easy to follow—always something to consider in a book for undergraduate non-majors. The book also intersects well with the themes of the course. It’s not the worst thing non-majors could read, and if it kindles among my students some sort of interest in history, well then, I’m happy.

So much for my overall impressions of the Gettysburg chapter. While I don’t always agree with Rose’s judgments, I can still see how he reaches them. Except for one topic.

Water.

Rose asserts that many soldiers at Gettysburg suffered from extreme dehydration and sunstroke because they were discouraged from drinking water. Too much water, so the argument went, was unhealthy. Rose refers to a “well-known New York Times letter to the editor . . . that had advised soldiers to consume as little as possible.” He later goes on to write that officers in the 124th New York and the 17th U.S. Infantry “actively prevented their men from refilling their canteens at roadside wells and pumps” which badly undermined the effectiveness of these regiments during the battle.[iii]

Again, Rose refers to few sources to support these assertion. He does produce a citation for the letter in the New York Times. And he provides a citation for the paragraph in which the reference to the two regiments occurs (although it’s not clear if that source refers to the experience of the two regiments or something else in that paragraph).

Winslow Homer, “The Coffee Call” from Campaign Sketches (1863): During the Civil War, a number of drinks were safer than water which was often tainted in one way or the other. The good news about coffee was that one had to boil it, thus killing off any bacteria or organisms that might cause illness. Coffee also provided a nice pick-me-up, and it could warm one on a cold day. The bad news about coffee (aside from the fact that it did require some time to prepare) was that it was a diuretic which meant that it could actually contribute to dehydration.

I have never heard about this prohibition against drinking water. It seems to me that other reasons probably better explain why soldiers were thirsty at Gettysburg. Most obviously, fighting in hot and humid weather was hard work. And in all likelihood, soldiers were already dehydrated by the time they reached the battlefield. Even though Gettysburg was an encounter battle, the days before the fight saw both Lee and Meade rushing to concentrate their forces in that area. Consequently, a number of units found themselves engaged in a series of long, hot marches, urged on by officers who would brook no delay. Under these circumstances, locating untainted water—always a problem for large armies during the Civil War—would have been difficult. It is also hard to imagine entire regiments waiting patiently around a country well or water pump, or even lining up along a small stream, to fill up canteens with water when the army needed them somewhere else immediately.

The experiences of the 5th New Hampshire shortly before Gettysburg may shed some light on these issues. On June 29, in the midst of a week of hard marching, the regiment was ordered to move from Frederick, MD, to Uniontown, MD, a distance of 32 miles.[iv] The entire II Corps (to which the 5th New Hampshire belonged), got off to a late start, so its commander, Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, ordered that his units should not be allowed to stop at streams to take their socks and shoes off.[v] Captain Thomas Livermore of Company E in the 5th New Hampshire remembered:

Our pace was rapid and the most rigid orders to keep the ranks closed up were enforced; we even were obliged to keep the regulation twenty-eight inches only between the men and their file leaders in fording streams, and no one of us was permitted to stop long enough to remove our shoes or stockings.[vi]

It was on this same day that Colonel Edward Cross, the regiment’s former commander, who now led the entire brigade to which the 5th New Hampshire belonged, used the flat of his sword to hit a corporal of the 148th Pennsylvania on the neck for dawdling in a stream.[vii]

Cross’s behavior certainly seemed unwarranted to some. Yet when placed in the context of Hancock’s order, this incident says something about the urgency with which these marches were conducted in the days leading up Gettysburg. It seems hard to believe that on a march of this sort men would have been permitted to stop and top off their canteens at this place and that. And that probably meant they were awfully thirsty by the time they reached the battlefield.

Before closing, I ought to return to Livermore who had this to say add about the June 29 march:

The day was lovely, though hot, and the people were demonstrative in their admiration and affection for us and the Union, and in the streets of the villages and at the corners of the country roads the farmers distributed bread to the soldiers from their wagons, children ran along the ranks with pails of water, and every one was open-handed and smiling.[viii]

This aside is revealing. First, the fact that he pointed out people were “demonstrative in their admiration and affection” suggests that such was not frequently the case (especially when the regiment was marching Virginia). Second, it is instructive that he mentioned children “ran along the ranks with pails of water.” The image implies that the soldiers were not allowed to break ranks, so the children had to keep up as best they could with the water so men could serve themselves without breaking stride. In other words, had it not been for the good offices of these civilians, the men would never have been able to obtain water on their own. 

Perhaps I make too much of Livermore’s words. Maybe I’m guilty of overstating my case. Recognizing that possibility, I’m open to changing my mind if I find evidence that soldiers were discouraged from drinking water because their officers or others thought too much H2O was unhealthy. But for now, call me skeptical.


[i] Alexander Rose, Men of War: The American Soldier in Combat at Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, and Iwo Jima (New York: Random House, 2016), 114.

[ii] See Mike Pride and Mark Travis, My Brave Boys: To War with Colonel Cross & the Fighting Fifth (Hanover: University Press of New England, 2001), 176-185. Among many letters that make the same point, see George S. Gove to Julia Parsons, December 14, 1862 and December 20, 1862, Parsons Family Papers, Series 2, Box 2, Folder 11, University of New Hampshire Special Collections & Archives.

[iii] Rose, 132-133.

[iv] William Child, A History of the Fifth Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers in the American Civil War, 1861-1865 (Bristol, NH: R. W. Musgrove, Printer, 1893), 207; Thomas Livermore, Days and Events 1860-1866 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1920), 235.

[v] Pride and Travis, 229.

[vi] Livermore, 234.

[vii] Joseph Wendel Muffly, The Story of Our Regiment: A History of the 148th Pennsylvania Vols. (Des Moines: The Kenyon Printing & Mfg. Co., 1904), 533, 716.

[viii] Livermore, 234.

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