Bulletproof vests and the stigma of cowardice in the Civil War

This advertisement appeared in Harper's Weekly on March 15, 1862.

The Soldier's Bullet Proof Vest has been repeatedly and thoroughly tested with Pistol Bullets at 10 paces, Rifle Bullets at 40 rods, by many Army Officers, and is approved and worn by them.

It is simple, light, and is a true economy of life -- it will save thousands. It will also double the value and power of the soldier; and every man in an army is entitled to its protection. Nos. 1, 2, and 3 express the sizes of men, and No. 2 fits nearly all.

Price for Private's Vest , $5. Officers' Vest, $7. They will be sent to any address, wholesale or retail.

Sold by MESSRS. ELLIOT, No. 231 Broadway, New York, and by all Military Stores. Agents wanted.

During the Civil War, bullet-proof vests were mass-produced for the first time and available to all soldiers and officers. The vests were not standard issue for the army, but soldiers could buy the vests for $5 (roughly $108 in 2010) from companies like Messrs. Elliot, G&D Cook Company, and Atwater Armor Company.

The vests weren’t as popular as you would think, though. For starters, the vests were heavy and cumbersome. The average soldier carried about 50 pounds, and a bullet-proof vest added about 12 pounds to the load. On a hot day, that extra weight made a huge difference. Many soldiers abandoned their vests as they marched; they would rather face enemy fire unprotected than suffer the heat and fatigue the vests warranted.

Though the Messrs. Elliot ad claims that the vests had been “repeatedly and thoroughly tested with Pistol Bullets at 10 paces, Rifle Bullets at 40 rods, by many Army Officers, and [were] approved and worn by them,” the vests were not very effective at a close range. The vests often failed to save lives, but they were useful in identifying the dead because soldiers would engrave their names or initials into them.1

Furthermore, the vests were associated with cowardice. In one account, a colonel promised his wife he would consider wearing a bulletproof vest, but later confided that the vest was uncomfortable and “looked upon as indicating timidity, if not cowardice.”2

During the Civil War, cowardice was grouped with offenses such as desertion, theft, sleeping on guard duty, spying, and even murder.3 A soldier could be executed, branded, or dishonorably discharged for any of these offenses. Though it is doubtful a soldier would be punished for wearing a bulletproof vest, the “stigma of cowardice” attached to the vests kept many soldiers from buying and wearing them.

Being considered a coward, liar, or scoundrel implied a lack of manliness. A soldier’s manliness was linked to his honor, which constantly had to be proven to his comrades.4 It was important for a soldier to be respected by his comrades because “military justice during the Civil War was so ambiguously defined by military documents and within the army itself.” When a soldier was put on trial for cowardice he was convicted based on the subjectivity of opinions and judgements of others. For instance, Captain Henry Krausneck was charged with cowardice by Colonel Adolph von Hartung. Von Hartung reported that Krausneck abandoned his position as acting Field Office of the regiment and protected himself from enemy fire by hiding behind a tree. This was viewed as a shameful and cowardly example for the men. Krausneck was found guilty of cowardice based on Von Hartung’s testimony and was dishonorably discharged; the leniency of his punishment was likely due in large to his officer status.5 Others were not so lucky. In his personal journal, Union infantryman Joseph Ward described the punishments of several deserters. In an entry labeled Friday the 6th of January, Ward wrote that two men were executed for desertion.6 Two weeks later, he wrote that another man was shot “in the attempt of desertion.”7

Though bulletproof vests would initially seem like a godsend, they were tarnished by their technological inefficiency and the stigma of cowardice attached to them. It would be decades - not until World War II - before flak jackets, the first genuinely “bulletproof” vests, won wide acceptance among American troops.

-- Hannah Jarrett ‘12 and Stephanie Walrath ‘12

1 David McCormick, “Knights in Binding Armor,”
America’s Civil War 53 (2010): 56-59.
2 ibid.
3 “Discipline in the Civil War Armies,” Civil War Home, accessed February 15, 2012, (http://www.civilwarhome.com/discipline.htm)
4 Lorien Foote, The Gentlemen and the Roughs (New York: NYU Press, 2010), 100.
5 “Stories of Cowardice,” Gettysburg Civil War Institute, accessed February 15, 2012, http://gettysburgcwi.posterous.com/the-court-martial-of-captain-henry-krausneck
6 Joseph R. Ward Jr., An Enlisted Soldier’s View of the Civil War, ed. D. Duane Cummins and Daryl Hohweiler (West Lafayette: Belle Publications, 1981), 195.
7 Ibid, 204.


150 Years Later: The Inauguration of Jefferson Davis

The Rebel Inaugural Address (Harper’s Weekly March 8, 1862)

On Saturday, February 22, while the Congress, Judges, and naval and military officers of the United States were assembled in the Capitol, listening to the Farewell Address of Washington, the miserable remnant of the Southern rebels were gathered in the principal square of Richmond, Virginia, listening to Mr. Jefferson Davis’s last apology for his crimes. Toward that square and to that speaker one can well imagine the ruined, heart-broken, panic-stricken, and despairing people of the South turning an eager ear, in search of consolation for the past and hope for the future.

Jefferson Davis gave them neither.

Beginning with a false statement of the causes which led to the rebellion, wholly omitting from view the chief cause, namely, the greed of slave-owners, and the truculent ambition of the Southern aristocracy; failing likewise, for the best of reasons, to assign one single cause, or enumerate one single event which could justify the plunging of a continent into savage war; misrepresenting the history of the contest with diabolical perversity; confessing, as he could not well help doing, that ‘the tide of war is against’ the rebels and that the future is pregnant with more ‘trials and difficulties,’ this pretended President can find no consolation for the unhappy people whom he and his fellow-conspirators have ruined, except in the hope that the North may now be able to pay its armies much longer, and that eventually the Powers of Europe may be tempted by the proffer of Southern produce and Southern free trade to espouse the cause of the insurgents, and convert the ‘proud people’ of the South into the bastard subjects of some foreign king!

Well may the South pronounce such a programme ‘a mockery,’ and such a government ‘a lamentable failure!’

There must have been many even among the ragged rabble of Richmond gathered round the orator who knew enough to tell him that if the South, in its poverty, can afford to carry on the war, the North, with its wealth, is not likely to fail from want of money; and that if, when the North was helpless and paralyzed, and the South flushed with victory, foreign nations abstained from meddling in the contest, they are not likely to do so now, when the gripe of a mighty government is clutched round the throat of the traitors, and their gurgling death-rattle is already audible.

There was an ominous fitness in the appearance, during the reading of ‘the inaugural,’ of that grim messenger who bore the news of the Fall of Nashville--Nashville, the prosperous city that was deemed insecure--Nashville, the centre of the vertebral artery of the rebellion. Did it not occur to Jefferson Davis that so appalling an event happening at such a moment was a warning and a judgment from that just God whose name this arch-rebel so audaciously blasphemes?

Perhaps one of the most controversial characters in American history, Jefferson Davis, with his rich political background and changing views on secessionism, continues to penetrate the historiographical scholarship of the twenty-first century. This date marks the sesquicentennial of Davis’s inauguration as President of the Confederate States of America. The Littlejohn Collection possesses the Harper’s Weekly compilation of 1862, in which the above article and political cartoon were published in reaction to the Davis inauguration, 150 years ago today.

While Davis had been an advocate for states’ rights as early as 1852, he was not always a secessionist. On October 11, 1858, Davis gave a speech in Faneuil Hall in Boston, promoting the preservation of the Union:

...[Y]ou see agitation, tending slowly and steadily to that separation of the state, which, if you have any hope connected with the liberty of mankind...if you have any sacred regard for the obligation which the acts of your fathers entailed upon you,--by each and all of these motives you are prompted to unite in an earnest effort to promote the success of that great experiment which your fathers left it to you to conclude. 1

He explained that while each state has the unequivocal right to secede, it also bears a responsibility to maintain the Union.

His hopes for a peaceful resolution, however, were dashed when South Carolina seceded from the Union December 20th of 1860. Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana followed suit in the next month. Davis, who was representing Mississippi in the United States Senate at the time, resigned his post on January 21, 1861, calling it the “saddest day of my life.” 2

By February, Davis was in the running for provisional president with three others: Howell Cobb (a former Congressman, Speaker of the House, Governor, and Secretary of Treasury), Alexander Stephens (a former congressman and governor), and Robert Toombs (a former congressman).
Stephens would become Davis’s VP; Toombs became his first Secretary of State. Davis received the unanimous vote, and was inaugurated to the temporary post on February 18. In November, upon the beginning of the Civil War, Davis was elected to a term of six years, and inaugurated to that term on February 22.

(Illustration of Jefferson Davis’s inauguration that appeared in Harper’s Weekly March 9, 1861.)

Davis’s inaugural address sought to prove that the formation of the Confederate States of America--and his Presidency over them--was, under the terms of the founding documents of the United States, lawful and even prescribed. The South’s secession, he argued, “illustrates the American idea that government rests upon the consent of the governed, and that it is the right of the people to alter or abolish a government whenever it becomes destructive of the ends for which it was established.” This right, he claimed, is expounded in the Declaration of Independence, which declares that “When a long train of abuses and usurpations...evinces a design to reduce [a people]...it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and provide new guards for their future security.” Davis hoped--futilely--that the secession of the Southern States would not ostensibly mean war. His goal for the Confederation, he claimed, was peace and prosperity, and therefore “it is a gross abuse of language to denominate the act [of secession] rebellion or revolution.”3

(The above is a partial scan of a Confederate 50 dollar note with Jefferson Davis on the face of the bill. (Can be found in the Littlejohn Collection’s ephemera index))

The center of controversy regarding the Southern Secession is, of course, the role of slavery. Davis--understandably--makes no mention of slavery in his inaugural address, but instead leaves for posterity this nugget of truth:
“Devoted to agricultural pursuits, their chief interest is the export of a commodity required in every manufacturing country. Our policy is peace, and the freest trade our necessities will permit. It is alike our interest, and that of all those to whom we would sell and from whom we would buy, that there should be the fewest practicable restrictions upon interchange of commodities.” 4

Here Davis refers to the profitability of agriculture, on which the Southern economy was based. It is in the mutual interest of the North and the South, he explains, for the sale of goods not to be “restricted” by, presumably, the abolition of free labor--that is, slavery. He goes on to say that secession was done “solely by a desire to protect and preserve our own rights and promote our own welfare, and that there [should] be no considerable diminution in the production of the great staple which constitutes our exports, and in which the commercial world has an interest scarcely less than our own.” The North perhaps as much as the South, he argues, would have nothing to glean from the prohibition of the slave economy.5

The Union states, however, understood Davis’s words to be a “blasphemy,” which, among other faults, “[ommitted]...the chief cause [of the rebellion], namely, the greed of slave-owners, and the truculent ambition of the Southern aristocracy.”6 It is not merely an idea of contemporary historians that assigns the credit of secession to the Southern elite; rather, it was understood even during the crisis itself that the “War of Rebellion” was a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight,” exemplified a month later, in April of 1862, when the new President signed the Confederate Congress’s Conscription Act.

(The above is an 1888 advertisement for Harter’s Iron Tonic, with an aged Jefferson Davis on the front.)

Even after the loss of his cause, Davis continued to speak for the right which, he surmised, the South had exercised in secession. He wrote in his memoir that “This overthrow of the rights of freemen and the establishment of such new relations required a complete revolution in the principle of the government of the United States, the subversion of the State governments, the subjugation of the people, and the destruction of the fraternal Union...Will it stand?...When the cause was lost, what cause was it? Not that of the South only, but the cause of constitutional government, of the supremacy of law, of the natural rights of man.” 7

The use of the term “natural rights of man” must be considered in the context of the mid-nineteenth century. It is the great irony of the Confederacy that, while heralding their own rights through secession, they sought to perpetuate the subjugation of millions. How can it be that such a blatant and deliberate abuse of human rights take place under the guise of protecting human rights? The question we would ask ourselves now is whether a state’s constitutional rights are paramount to the extent that they be justified in eclipsing the basic human rights of a minority. The seceding states didn’t ask this question, though, simply because they saw no abuse of human rights. To have rights--to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”--one had to be human. Slaves did not merit these rights because they were considered less than human.

It would be unfair to characterize this as a “Southern” school of thought, because most Northerners were not what we might call “enlightened” about human rights, either. Because the northern economy developed primarily in industry rather than agriculture, slave labor was less necessary. However, many northern states employed slave labor in the nineteenth century, as late as 1865, in the case of New Jersey. The Northern cause was, primarily, the Union’s preservation, and radical abolitionists like John Brown were rare. Even in 1860, most northern states only granted suffrage to free blacks, with some property requirements. A peculiar case is that of Massachusetts, where in 1783 its Supreme Court declared that “the idea of slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct and [the Commonwealth's] Constitution,” therefore declaring all black men human and free.8 Generally, in both the North and the South, blacks were considered inferior, and undeserving of human rights. One hundred fifty years after this historic debate, the irony of Davis’s “human rights” statement is bewildering, a clear case of splitting hairs.

Davis remained President of the Confederate States of America until May 5, 1865, after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. He was imprisoned at Fortress Monroe for two years, indicted for treason, and eventually released on $100,000 bail (approximately $1,540,000 today), posted by prominent members of society, both North and South. He died Dec. 6, 1889, after writing several memoirs to commemorate his cause. Two years before before his death he declared to an audience in Meridian, Mississippi: “United you are now, and if the Union is ever to be broken [again] let the other side break it.”9

-Stephanie Walrath '12

1 “Jefferson Davis’ speech at Boston,” The Papers of Jefferson Davis, accessed February 22, 2012, http://jeffersondavis.rice.edu/Content.aspx?id=80
2 William James Cooper, Jefferson Davis and the Civil War Era (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2008), 42.
3 “Jefferson Davis’ Second Inaugural Address,” The Papers of Jefferson Davis, accessed February 22, 2012, http://jeffersondavis.rice.edu/Content.aspx?id=107
4 “Jefferson Davis’ Second Inaugural Address”
5 “Jefferson Davis’ Second Inaugural Address”
6 Author unknown, “The Rebel Inaugural Address,” Harper’s Weekly 7(271), March 8, 1862: 146.
7 Jefferson Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1881): 763.
8 “The Legal End of Slavery in Massachusetts,” The Massachusetts Historical Society, accessed February 22, 2012, http://www.masshist.org/endofslavery/?queryID=54
9 Author unknown, “Jeff Davis Again Advised His People Never to Try and Break the Union Again,” The Reading Eagle, May 13, 1887.


Love is in the...mail: A proposal via letter, 1878

Oct 28th, 78

My dear miss Bessie:
On last Friday and Saturday I looked for a letter from you, & instead of going to Judge Oul’s class yesterday morning I went to the PC & was more than remunerated by yielding to the temptation
Yesterday was a lovely day & the streets were thronged with strangers who have come to attend the Fair
Our church was filled & Dr. Hoge preached a splendid sermon, his subject was “hope,” I think it suited me exactly. And now miss Bessie I am going to write on a matter the solemnity of which is needless to remind a woman of your good sense. For me to write you that I love you is useless for you much be [sic] aware that my attachment for you far exceeds the love that I have for my own life. And will you my dear miss Bessie marry me?
I hoped & fully expected to be able to visit you this week but will be unavoidably detained from doing so, but I sincerely trust the time is near when shall see you & call you my own
Goodnight my dear miss Bessie, & believe me to be yours truly,
Wm. B. Taylor

In this letter, dated October 28, 1878, William “Willie” Barnett Taylor expresses his love and desire for his longtime love, Bessie Boggs. Our collection dates the letters between Taylor and Boggs to as early as January 25, 1878. In the context of these letters, Willie was on an extended trip around the United States. Shortly after this letter was written, he departed for Australia.

The sentimental tone of Willie’s note is characteristic of male correspondence during this era. Rather than this romanticism being perceived as emasculating, “nineteenth-century middle-class men were expected to express intense emotions in their romantic relationships. Tenderhearted feelings were not usually perceived as unmanly or as troublesome when confined to private relationships with women.”1 Willie and Bessie’s letters, written from a distance, fall into a broad category of correspondences from the nineteenth century in which love was preserved over time and space through intense sentimental expression. Women were given frequent affirmation, because it was expected for men to “[explode] with feeling, manifesting as much emotional intensity and range as nineteenth-century women” themselves.2

The concept of marriage had, by the dawn of the 19th century, transformed in a sense from being a logistical, calculated match to being a mutual partnership based on sincere affection. While this is an idea that is taken for granted today, two hundred years ago it symbolized the end of an era, and was regarded by many to be irresponsible and frivolous. Second century Stoic Seneca claimed that “nothing is more impure than to love one’s wife as if she were a mistress.”3 Fifteen hundred years later, John Adams famously declared that the “ideal mate” was characterized by the willingness “to palliate faults and Mistakes, to put the best Construction upon Words and Action, and to forgive Injuries.”4

Those critical of the newfound “love match,” as these men would have been, worried that “the values of free choice and egalitarianism could easily spin out of control. If the choice of a marriage partner was a personal decision, conservatives asked, what would prevent young people, especially women, from choosing unwisely?”5 Questions were raised about how marrying based on love might upset the established institution of marriage, as well as the social structure in which it was formed. In 1774, the British Lady Magazine published the opinion that “‘the idea of matrimony’ was not ‘for men and women to be always taken up with each other’, but ‘to discharge the duties of civil society, to govern their families with prudence and to educate their children with discretion.’”6 The idea that these tasks might be possible within a love-based marriage was yet unproven.

It is unknown whether Willie received permission from Bessie’s father to ask for her hand. And yet it seems that, as early as the nineteenth century, that “courting couples...insisted on the priority of their feelings over all social barriers or familial restraints.”7 Since marriage had become an institution based on happiness and satisfaction, couples insisted--as they still do--that if their family “professes to have [their] happiness at heart,” they would support the union.8 The selection of a wife represented finding a love superior to existing relationships; Lyman Hodge, for example, professed his love in the mid-nineteenth century by declaring that "I love my father, mother and sisters. . .[but I] love you so much more." This independence of will was evident in the reality that “by the 1830s at least, men and women were engaging in courtship, agreeing upon marriage, and only then seeking parental blessings.”9 And while some men observed the formality of obtaining permission from the bride’s parents, it was by no means required, and it became very rare for the groom’s parents to have any say at all.

Coontz argues that the evolution of the home in the 19th century into a proverbial “nest” aroused the swiftly changing roles within marriage. A man’s primary obligation shifted from his birth family to his conjugal family, and consequently, “husband” and “wife” adopted more “sentimental” roles. “Manly virtue” was no longer associated with community or political affairs, but with the “‘private passions’ [of] supporting one’s own family and showing devotion toward one’s wife and children.”10 The quiet adoration and warmth toward one’s mate thus became inherent in what the community might perceive as a virtuous home. And very often, this adoration was expressed over distance and time, through love letters.

From a perusal of their correspondence, it appears that Willie and Bessie married shortly after this letter was written. In 1884, they had a child, Henry Porterfield Taylor. Henry Taylor wrote the introduction to “Military Reminisces of Gen. William R. Boggs,” a memoir by his grandfather, Bessie’s father, a West Point graduate and Confederate general.

Bessie began archiving her family’s documents, many of which are in our collection now. She died on September 1, 1922. Willie died July 8, 1933. Both are buried in Salem Cemetery in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

- Stephanie Walrath '12

1 Karen Lystra, Searching the Heart: Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America (Cary: Oxford University Press, 1992), 139.
2 Ibid, 33.
3 Lawrence Stone, The Past and the Present Revisited (New York: Routledge, 1981), 347.
4 Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History (New York: Penguin Group, 2005), 21.
5 Ibid, 149.
6 Ibid, 150.
7 Lystra, 175.
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid, 159.
10 Coontz, 168.


Does this stuff matter? Depends on who you ask

If you use any of Google's services that require a username and password you've probably seen a little heading inserted by the company noting "We’re changing our privacy policy and terms. This stuff matters." Did you click on the link to learn more? Do you think this stuff matters?

The gist of this new policy change is that Google wants you, the user, to agree to one privacy policy for a wide range of Google services and products (think Gmail, YouTube, Google+) so that the company can pool the data you provide and "treat you as a single user across all [their] products." The company claims that this streamlining of permissions is a move towards "[their] desire to create one beautifully simple and intuitive experience across Google.” Sounds great, right?

Well, some folks are a little spooked about all this data-sharing. After all, the aggregation of all of this personal data could end up forming one of the largest databases in the world of its type (with Facebook a main competitor). We ought not forget that Google's main and most lucrative business model is targeted advertising. So, while it may end up that our experience across the Google suite is enhanced, with programs and apps learning from each other about us, we'll also certainly be subjected to even more precisely targeted advertising.

And then there's the thorny issue of not being able to opt out. You have two options: 1) say OK and keep using Google services in "always-signed-in" mode; 2) Export your data from Google services and accounts, delete it from Google's servers, move on to another service. You can't tell Google to maintain the current personal information firewall between services.

Google claims that there nothing untoward about its new move. Critics claim there are some major privacy implications. Yet another commenter seems to think that maybe its not so big a deal, seeing as Google already "knows more about [him] than [his] wife."

Sources consulted for this post:









(This post was completed with the assistance of Dominika Gergeley '13.)