"The Social and Cultural Dynamics of Soldiering": The 5th New Hampshire versus the Texas Brigade

Hugh Dubrulle's picture

In his last post, Hugh Dubrulle compared the social composition of the 5th New Hampshire to the Texas Brigade. At the conclusion of that post, he surmised that substantial differences in social composition helped explain important differences in the culture of the units—especially the relationship between officers and men. Here he continues to explore these differences by highlighting the contrasts in the cultures of the two units.

 

In the fall of 1861, Confederate authorities appointed a “Colonel Shaller” to command the 5th Texas. Shaller traveled several miles outside of Richmond to Camp Texas, where his regiment was located, to look over his men. According to one source, “he came out to the camp in all the pomp and circumstances befitting his high position, splendidly mounted on a steed . . . glittering with tinsel of gold, and bearing about him all the symbols of his rank.” Partly because the Texans resented his airs, and partly because he was Jewish, Shaller received a rude welcome, with one soldier wondering aloud, “What is it? Is it a man, a fish, or a bird?” The next morning, as he prepared to take a ride, the colonel saw that someone had shaved his horse’s tail “sleek as an opossum’s” and cut the girth of his saddle. Shaller left camp and never returned.

 

Shaller thus went the way of many officers in the Texas Brigade. The Texans rejected a number of the men appointed to lead them, with one private in the 5th Texas claiming that the unit “fired colonels, lieutenant colonels, and majors faster than Mr. Davis and the Secretary of War could send them out.” In his 2001 Journal of Southern History article, “The Social and Cultural Dynamics of Soldiering in Hood’s Texas Brigade,” Charles Brooks emphasizes the power that the rank and file in this unit exerted in the selection of not just field officers but also company commanders. His main point was to stress the degree to which the “planters’ hegemony” in the South was negotiated; political and military leaders needed to win the loyalty of “plain folk” by looking out for the interests of this group and understanding when to make concessions. Brooks’ argument rests partly on the premise that the Texas brigade’s soldiers were representative of the male population in the state as a whole and that the great majority of them were “common men of moderate means.”

 

So far as the relationship between field officers and soldiers was concerned, the 5th New Hampshire could not have offered a greater contrast to the Texas Brigade. In the former unit, authority clearly flowed from the top downward: Colonel Edward E. Cross, the regiment’s commander, was firmly in charge. As a condition of accepting command of the regiment, Cross demanded of the governor and the state’s executive council that he appoint all the field and company officers. Unlike the Texas Brigade, there were no elections for company commanders. Indeed, Cross had picked his captains before a third of the regiment had even been recruited. Since Cross had recently returned to New Hampshire after a decade-long absence, he probably relied on recommendations given to him by various friends, including Henry O. Kent, the state’s assistant adjutant general. That Cross probably didn’t know many of his captains personally was of no matter; he felt empowered to dispose of them as he wished. When two of them did not bother to master the rudiments of drill, he had them hauled before a brigade board of review in January 1862; the board summarily discharged them the next month. In July and September 1862, Cross forced two more officers to resign (one of whom was an alcoholic) because they had shown themselves unequal to the rigors of fighting during the Peninsula campaign. The colonel was instrumental in compelling yet another captain to leave the regiment in January 1863 over a dispute regarding guard duty. By this point, only one of the original captains remained with the regiment; of the others who had not been chased out of the unit, one had resigned in November 1862 due to wounds sustained at Antietam, and three more had been killed at Fredericksburg (one of whom had been brought before a court-martial by Cross the month before). In the Texas Brigade, the soldiers drove away officers who did not suit, but in the 5th New Hampshire, it was the colonel.

 

Cross was no less hard on the rank and file who resisted him. In his journal, he wrote that while the regiment was forming and drilling outside of Concord, “The men found out that they must obey, or suffer the severest consequences. One slight mutiny occurred among some men from Portsmouth, which resulted in their entire defeat and humiliation before the entire regiment.” There was no chance that these soldiers would intimidate their colonel.

 

In the Texas Brigade, with the Confederate authorities’ acquiescence, soldiers accepted some officers and rejected others. In the case of the 5th New Hampshire, however, the colonel obtained from state authorities the power to hire and fire his officers. Meanwhile, he kept the rank and file firmly under his thumb. What accounts for these very different dynamics? Some of it had to do with personality. Cross was a formidable, strong-willed character. But, then, the Texas Brigade must have possessed several such colonels. Some of it may have had to do with the state government’s willingness to grant Cross the authority that he demanded. Yet, that would have mattered little had he proven himself as incapable of controlling his men as some of the officers in the Texas Brigade showed themselves to be. One is left, then, with the culture of the men who filled the 5th New Hampshire. In my last post, I established that the Granite State soldiers were far more plebeian in character than their counterparts in the 1st Texas (which itself was representative of the brigade to which it belonged and the state from which it originated). Brooks describes the soldiers in the Texas Brigade as men of moderate means, but on average they were much wealthier than their counterparts from the New Hampshire. A third of the Texans were slaveholders, and while the majority of this group owned fewer than ten enslaved people, the wealth represented by this property was far greater than what the vast majority of men in the 5th New Hampshire could ever hope to obtain. Moreover, the nature of the Texans’ property surely influenced their attitude toward authority. Had Cross found himself dealing with wealthier, more self-assured men who submitted to command with reluctance because they wished to avoid being treated “like slaves,” he too might have gone the way of Shaller.

 

What the foregoing seems to reveal is that there was more than one way to construct a crack Civil War unit. Officers applying contrasting leadership styles to different types of men could attain very similar results on the battlefield.

Dear Hugh, 

Thank you for this thoughtful follow-up post on your previous one. I can't help but wonder whether you don't want a third point of comparison, such as a northern regiment from an affluent part of the northern Midwest. Or perhaps the secondary literature on the social history of Civil War regiments, which I know is vast, will help flesh out the comparison. There are a lot of points of contrast between these two regiments (North vs. South, East vs. West, the nexus of political influence vs. regimental input, specific personalities involved). While I thought you attended to these carefully, I still found myself wanting a more comprehensive view of where these two regiments fit within a broader spectrum. I'll admit I took a trip down memory lane this morning and revisited the August 2003 special issue of the Journal of Social History, which I read chunks of in my first semester in graduate school and which has many thoughtful pieces on the relationship between social and cultural history. I particularly recommend Nicole Eustace's article, "When Fish Walk on Land," and its contrast between representative and situative analyses. It would seem to me that comparative history, whether focused on regiments or nations, probably has an inherent tendency to engage in representative analyses--to pick two points of comparison and accentuate their contrasts as indicative of broader trends. Situative analysis, while inherently comparative in its own way, would seem to operate under a slightly different logic concerned with the idea that variation is pervasive so that no one point of comparison is in and of itself typical. I also thought your post was very much in line with Paula Fass's emphasis in her contribution to the forum, "Cultural History/Social History," on combining the merits of the two approaches. I enjoyed your piece and look forward to seeing the nexus of social and cultural history in your project continue as you work on it. 

Best wishes, 

Dave Prior
 

Dear David,

These are excellent points, all of which make good sense. As a newcomer to this type of Civil War history, I appreciate the references to specific articles. I originally became interested in the social composition of the 5th New Hampshire because I wanted to know something about the character and attributes of the men who filled its ranks. I thought this information would give me some insight into the way these soldiers experienced trauma during the war (which is what I’m really interested in). In other words, these men were not blank slates when they entered the army; their civilian lives probably played some role in the way they processed what happened to them over the course of the conflict. I also hoped that studying these soldiers’ antebellum lives would be a first installment toward studying their entire life trajectories so I could make educated speculations about how the war influenced these trajectories.

Having made a start in that direction, I ran across Brooks’ article (I don’t remember how or why). I was struck by the way the degree to which the social composition of the 5th New Hampshire and the Texas Brigade differed. And then there was the huge contrast as well in the way officers related to men. I thought the juxtaposition would make for an interesting post. But you are absolutely correct when you write that a comparison of this sort tends to “pick two points of comparison and accentuate their contrasts as indicative of broader trends.”

So far as my research interests are concerned (i.e. Civil War trauma), a much more useful comparison (and one I’ve already started working on) consists of comparing the life trajectory of men who served in the 5th New Hampshire to their neighbors who did not enlist during the war. To that end, I decided to study Claremont, NH, which produced more recruits for the 5th New Hampshire than any other town in the state. With the help of a student, I recorded information from the Census of 1860 for Claremont in an Excel spreadsheet (over 4000 people), found as many men as I could who had fought in the 5th New Hampshire, and located men who fought in other units during the war. I also noted all the men living in town who were eligible to volunteer in 1861 as well the members of that group who did not serve. By comparing the lives of veterans of the 5th New Hampshire who grew up in Claremont to those of their neighbors who did not don blue during the war, I hope to learn about the degree to which trauma shaped the lives of former soldiers. But as you point out in your message, one should remain vigilant while making comparisons of this sort—even with what amounts to a pretty good control group. Thanks for the comments.

Cheers,

Hugh

Hugh,

Along similar lines to David, and perhaps to throw in another complicating point of comparison, would you say that the Texas Brigade was representative of the South?

To be sure, Confederate military history is not my forte. However, I seem to have an ingrained notion that Confederate soldiers were pliant due to the South’s more rigid social system. Even middling slaveholders, I’d assume (but perhaps wrongly), would have shown some level of deference to their social superiors. Were people like Sheller, and other officers who were chased off, large planters? Or similarly, was Sheller himself “a plain folk,” with the wealthier, more established men of the Texas Brigade refusing to serve under a social inferior?

I’m not familiar with Brooks’ article. Still, based on your post, I gather he must have been challenging the importance of deference in understanding the Confederate military's social dynamics. That leads me to the primary question of representativeness: is it possible that Texas was just unique? For example, I know Stonewall Jackson had a reputation for being a harsh disciplinarian, but Jackson’s men still respected him. It’s hard for me to imagine him tolerating the insubordination you attribute to the Texas Brigade. Indeed, Jackson’s personality likely played a large role in maintaining discipline, but I do wonder if men recruited from Virginia were simply more deferential than men raised in the West?

- Dan

Dear Dan and Hugh,

Like Dan, I am no expert on Confederate military matters, yet when I read Hugh's post, I had a similar thought to Dan's, but perhaps inverted.

Dan wonders if Confederate soldiers might be more pliant due to a rigid social system prevailing in the South. I wonder if the opposite might be the case: if the rhetoric of Secession and of not succumbing to federal "authority" may reflect or have accelerated an anti-authority stance that might explain why soldiers in the 5th Texas acted out against those sent to command them.
(I am not one to defend Jefferson Davis, but sometimes I do think, 'president of a nation created to spurn federal authority -- not an enviable job description!') I guess that comes down to whether the 5th Texas was unusual among Confederate outfits for its treatment of those sent to command.

-Lois

Hugh, this is a great post - thanks for sharing it, along with your previous one. I've thoroughly enjoyed what your work and writing has me pondering today (and last fall).

Something that helped me when I was thinking about command in Hood's Texas Brigade, and the Civil War in general, is that ancient power exchange that all successful commanders must master. I haven't seen success for regimental commanders who simply seize and then ruthlessly hold power, as I envision when you write "the 5th New Hampshire could not have offered a greater contrast to the Texas Brigade. In the former unit, authority clearly flowed from the top downward: Colonel Edward E. Cross, the regiment’s commander, was firmly in charge." I'm also not sure that Cross held his power because the enlisted men of the 5th NH were less affluent than those we see in HTB's Texas regiments (the 1st you note in particular). His wealth and authority may have caused them to accept Cross's authority, but I'm not sure we can argue that's obedience or acceptance of leadership results in a crack unit. There's an element of inspiration, a willingness to sacrifice again and again for goals that are not always clear, etc. that seems necessary, too, yes?

It may be worth considering how often military leadership, even when it needs to be firm, clear, and "top downward," -- as it was with effective Texas Brigade commanders -- still retains elements of a power exchange where successful officers show their men so care, protection, desire to prepare them, etc. and they, in turn, accept their leadership. You can see from Henry V before Agincourt to Daniel Morgan walking from campfire to campfire on the eve of Cowpens, inspiring the men, ensuring that they understood the plan, etc. You can turn to Plutarch’s description of Lycurgus—he won the Spartan’s faith by his willingness to relinquish power and to win their loyalty rather than assume it. DeTocqueville also discusses this relationship between officers and men in his analysis of democratic armies. Think of Wolfe advising his regimental officers in 1749 to regularly walk through camp, check on the men, watch their health, measure their morale, etc. I'm only offering Western examples, but you can see examples of this among Ottoman, Mongol, etc. military traditions, too.

I discuss this power exchange in my book you referenced in the first post and in an article I just published on this subject, focusing on HTB officers/leadership, for _Civil War Times_. Some of it may help? Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed this - thank you for making time to share your research and theories.

- Susannah

Susannah J. Ural, Ph.D.
Professor of History
Co-Director, The Dale Center for the Study of War & Society
University of Southern Mississippi
Director, Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi Project

Dan, Lois, and Susannah,

I’d like to start by apologizing for my delay in responding to the thoughtful and generous feedback I’ve received. To my mind, it makes sense to respond to all of this feedback at once because in different ways, the various replies I’ve received all alight upon the same problem with my original post.

I originally collected census data on soldiers and veterans who served in the 5th New Hampshire because I thought that by tracing them through census records I could find some way of assessing the impact of the war experience on their lives (especially the way trauma might have affected the group as a whole). Having gone through the laborious process of amassing this data (which I’m still collecting—see my response to David above), I hoped I could employ it for other purposes. When I read Brooks’s article, I surmised that stark differences between the social composition of the Texas Brigade and the 5th New Hampshire might have contributed to important cultural differences. To be honest, I was so caught up with my neat, shiny statistics that I was tempted into the trap of using social conditions exclusively to explain cultural phenomena—which, frankly, was a mistake. While social factors may play an important role in command and subordination, they cannot constitute the sole, operative influence. In other words, this post has been an object lesson in confining the employment of social statistics to their proper sphere.

Having said all that, I’m still interested in figuring out why the 5th New Hampshire sustained an excellent combat record despite repeatedly suffering heavy losses. Susannah, your helpful and thought-provoking reply has me asking myself about the degree to which all effective units and leaders are alike. (I think here of the opening line of Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”) I agree that the great captains of the past shared certain qualities, and your reminder that a “power exchange” transpires between leaders and common soldiers no matter what the era has made a great impression on my thoughts (I will read your recommendations!). And yet at the same time, I feel compelled to remember that Henry V, Wolfe, Daniel Morgan (and Oliver Cromwell and the Duke of Wellington while we’re at it—if we are contemplating the Anglo-American world) were different people living in different societies. I’m reminded of John A. Lynn’s Battle: A History of Combat and Culture (2004) which, if I remember correctly, seeks to “bury the universal soldier” in favor of recognizing that armies are expressions of the cultures they defend. In other words, leadership and obedience manifest themselves differently according to time and place. These are big questions that I need to contemplate—while doing more research on the 5th New Hampshire and maybe comparing it to other units in a nuanced way.

Many thanks to all of you who have replied to this post. You’ve all made me sit and think for a spell, and I very much appreciate it.

Hugh

Hugh, thanks so much for this. To your thoughts on the universal soldier -- absolutely. But I'm talking about universal skills in leadership. That power exchange takes many forms based on the time, the culture, the commanders, the men, the situation -- it varies by time and place, but it still takes place and successful commanders master that skill. I'll enjoy watching this project move forward and reading what you find and argue.

Again, thanks for sharing your scholarship,
Susannah