Sunday, December 12, 2010

A new angle on the Civil War

One of the few mailing lists that I find just about as useful in genealogy as in my earlier life is that of the National Bureau of Economic Research. That's how I ran across the work of UCLA economist Dora L. Costa, coauthor with Matthew E. Kahn of Heroes and Cowards: The Social Face of War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008). From Chapter 1:

This book is about the heroes and cowards of the Civil War. It is about tests of adversity on the battlefield and on long marches and in the POW camps where so many soldiers died. It tells of glory and shame after the war, and of how former slaves made the transition to being free men. What do stories of deserters, POWs, returning veterans, and men throwing off the bonds of slavery have in common? While seemingly unrelated, these stories are connected by a common thread: how men interacted with their comrades, and how these interactions affected their decisions and their outcomes. . . .

Our analytical approach, like that of the authors of The American Soldier, is statistical. An advantage of this approach is that it permits us to weigh the relative importance of different motives in men’s decisions.

We begin with the stories of nine men who fought in the Civil War. They were ordinary men. They merit no mention in history books. But despite their anonymity, we can reconstruct their lives and the lives of their comrades from administrative and other official records. Their lives can suggest why some communities work while others do not, and why the distinction matters.

Costa's web page, linked above, includes the full text of some papers that went into the making of the book. I haven't read it yet, but it looks like valuable context for those who research Civil War participants on a regular basis.

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