“To Think of the Subject Unmans Me:” An Exploration of Grief and Soldiering Through the Letters of Henry Livermore Abbott
Senior History Thesis
This paper explores the challenges to both the Victorian ideals of manliness and the culture of death presented by the American Civil War. The letters of Henry Abbott, a young officer serving with the 20th Massachusetts, display the tension between his upper class New England world, in which gentleman were expected to operate within an ideal of emotional control and sentimentality, and his new existence on the ground level of the Army of the Potomac. After the death of his brother, this tension initially caused him to suppress his grief for fear of being "unmanned" in front of his fellow soldiers. Eventually, Abbott found a different and more acceptable way to display emotion through mourning the deaths of fellow soldiers in his regiment as surrogates for his brother’s death. Over time, Abbott’s comrades became much more than stand-ins for his family. He truly began to conceive of the men he fought and suffered with in brotherly terms, and this allowed him to create a space in which he was comfortable openly grieving. Abbott’s use of surrogates both for his family and for the idealized “Good Death” allowed him to salvage his ideological foundations and apply them to a new world of carnage and violence.