Baring the Iron Hand: Discipline in the Union Army
By Steven J. Ramold
(December 2010 Civil War News)
Illustrated, notes, bibliography, index, 454 pp., 2010, Northern Illinois University Press, www.niupress.niu.edu, $40.
For the first time in its history, the United States military was inundated with a massive influx of civilians when the Civil War erupted, one which was vastly larger than the Army’s expansion for the Mexican War.
The clash between civilian life and military regulation was obvious grist for tension. Steven Ramold examines this conflict and its effects on discipline in this book. He concludes that the authorities were ultimately compelled to accommodate the large numbers of citizen soldiers by modifying a frequently harsh and inflexible prewar system.
Grounded mostly on extensive research in primary sources, Ramold’s book opens by summarizing the evolution of American military discipline, including the Articles of War, from the American Revolution to April 1861.
The next chapters focus on specific problems, including the citizen-soldiers’ intolerance of Army regimentation and their frequently fractious relationships with their superior officers; the abuse of alcohol; the resort to vices such as gambling and prostitution; insubordination and mutiny; desertion; and crimes such as theft, vandalism, rape, and murder.
The compilation of incidents is interesting and is suggestive of what the late Bell Wiley and his successors might have assembled had they concentrated exclusively on the seamier side of soldier life. At times, however, the sheer volume of incidents that are described makes the text labored and somewhat repetitive.
The most useful part of the book is found in the next two chapters. The first capably describes the evolution of the military justice system after war began, including establishment of the Provost Marshal Corps, and the structure and operation of regimental courts-martial, general courts-martial, and the Judge Advocate General.
Using a randomly selected sample of 5,000 courts-martial files from the collection of the National Archives and Records Administration, Ramold analyzes who was charged with what types of offenses as the war progressed, how frequently convictions were obtained, what punishments were imposed, and to what extent these were ameliorated by the appeal process. His notes helpfully show the chi-square significance of the recorded incidents.
Ramold next examines the various types of punishments inflicted, ranging from “camp” discipline such as drumming out or bucking and gagging to court-martial-imposed executions. He focuses on execution because its use in desertion cases caused widespread opposition in the ranks.
Ramold concludes that the postwar army made much of this war-driven flexibility a permanent part of the military justice system in order to more closely reflect the experience of civilians.
His book is necessarily not comprehensive. There is room for further treatment of military discipline specifically as it involved the significant Irish and German immigrant groups who served and who may have had different premilitary experiences.
The Germans, for example, included substantial numbers of “free thinkers” and émigrés who had fled their native lands to avoid military induction, but who also, on the other hand, fervently believed in the Union cause.
These groups warrant study in part because at the higher levels they were often commanded by native-born Americans. Ramold also leaves to others the Confederate experience in this area.
This book suffers from two annoying flaws, both of which appear to lie at the publisher’s door. There are an unacceptable number of typographical and grammatical errors (which seem to be concentrated in the first half of the book). In addition, subjects uniformly appear 12 pages sooner than indicated in the index.
Notwithstanding these defects, Ramold’s book is a solid, thoroughly-researched effort that will be of definite value to anyone interested in the subject of military discipline in the Union armies.
Reviewer: John Foskett
John Foskett is a practicing attorney in Boston, Mass., and has a life-long interest in the Civil War.