Cowardice: A Brief History

Cowardice: A Brief History

by Chris Walsh


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A provocative look at how cowardice has been understood from ancient times to the present

Coward. It's a grave insult, likely to provoke anger, shame, even violence. But what exactly is cowardice? When terrorists are called cowards, does it mean the same as when the term is applied to soldiers? And what, if anything, does cowardice have to do with the rest of us? Bringing together sources from court-martial cases to literary and film classics such as Dante's Inferno, The Red Badge of Courage, and The Thin Red Line, Cowardice recounts the great harm that both cowards and the fear of seeming cowardly have done, and traces the idea of cowardice’s power to its evolutionary roots. But Chris Walsh also shows that this power has faded, most dramatically on the battlefield. Misconduct that earlier might have been punished as cowardice has more recently often been treated medically, as an adverse reaction to trauma, and Walsh explores a parallel therapeutic shift that reaches beyond war, into the realms of politics, crime, philosophy, religion, and love.

Yet, as Walsh indicates, the therapeutic has not altogether triumphed—contempt for cowardice endures, and he argues that such contempt can be a good thing. Courage attracts much more of our attention, but rigorously understanding cowardice may be more morally useful, for it requires us to think critically about our duties and our fears, and it helps us to act ethically when fear and duty conflict.

Richly illustrated and filled with fascinating stories and insights, Cowardice is the first sustained analysis of a neglected but profound and pervasive feature of human experience.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691173399
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 12/06/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 1,248,671
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Chris Walsh is associate director of the College of Arts and Sciences Writing Program at Boston University.

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A Brief History

By Chris Walsh


Copyright © 2014 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-5203-1



A Shadow History of the Home of the Brave

A brief survey of how the idea of cowardice has figured throughout U.S. history, uniting and dividing Americans, spurring brave feats and reckless mistakes, might begin in 1758, during what was for the British side one of the darkest hours of the French and Indian War. In North America the conflict had begun in May 1754, when a twenty-three-year-old major named George Washington bungled an attempt to stop the French from building Fort Duquesne at the strategic fork of the Monongohela and Ohio Rivers. Washington and his men built a sorry stockade downriver that they called, all too aptly, Fort Necessity. In July, French troops overwhelmed Washington and his men there. Over the next four years, the British had few victories and many defeats. Leaders and forts fell, and hundreds of colonists were killed or kidnapped. Yet the army repeatedly faltered in its effort to raise troops or other forms of support from among colonial subjects. Recruiting soldiers was an immense challenge—as difficult as raising the dead, Washington lamented.

By 1758, changes in leadership in Virginia and in Great Britain brought an increase in political and material support for the military effort. Hopes were high that the war would turn in British favor. But then, hopes had been high before. In April, conscription was ended and pay was increased, but still Virginia was having trouble raising men. Morale among such troops that were raised was low. As the Reverend Samuel Davies prepared to deliver a sermon in Hanover, Virginia "to raise a Company for Captain Samuel Meredith," he faced circumstances that would challenge the best recruiter.

Davies was precisely that. He was a tall "New Light" Presbyterian who spoke with the fire of a true believer, and he had the fragile but intense aspect of someone who was often very ill. A well-educated man who would in 1759 become president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), a post he would hold until his death in 1761, he was able to speak in strong and vivid terms calculated to appeal to his much less well-educated listeners. As a dissenter from the Anglican Church, he would not be suspected of being a toady of the Crown. In short, Davies was in the ideal position and had the ideal style to recruit successfully.

Yet witnesses to Davies's wartime sermons remembered the "gloom and dejection" on the faces of his auditors. On May 8, 1758, they must have been deeply skeptical too. Why should they fight, and why fight now? Why should they leave their farms and families and face the rigors of military life? Virginia did have a claim on much of the contested territory, but it was only a few elites who would profit from defending that claim. Men of lower status—men who would do most of the actual fighting—could not see how they would benefit. As we shall see in later chapters, either danger or authority might have compelled the men in his audience to act, but both seemed remote. Many in Hanover were, furthermore, not English settlers from eastern Virginia but Scotch-Irish and Germans from colonies to the north.

Such was the situation as Davies stood on the muster grounds of Hanover, Virginia, and delivered a recruiting sermon he called The Curse of Cowardice. Warning Virginians that danger was at hand, even if they could not see it, Davies asserted that cowardice was "now as execrable as ever" it had been in the scripture he quoted. Playing on his audience's fear of being cowardly seems to have proved successful. The company for which he was recruiting filled beyond capacity, and he was asked to speak again later that day at a local tavern. (The sermon was also widely circulated as a pamphlet, and was reprinted at least four times.) By June 5, these men were in the military, and in late November, just before their term of service was to end, the French realized that their erstwhile Indian allies would not come to their aid and burned Fort Duquesne to the ground. Before the end of 1758 the British were building a settlement just upstream and calling it Pittsburgh.

If the British authorities are to be believed, however, colonial soldiers such as those recruited by Davies should not get much credit for this or any other victory in the French and Indian War. British military leaders in North America considered the American colonists to be generally cowardly; King George and other leaders back in England held similar views. When these colonists started to rebel, this belief led British rulers to think that the rebels could be defeated with a small force.

The colonists had a similar view of the British. In Boston in 1770, as they hurled snowballs and taunts of "Damned rascally scoundrel lobster son of a bitch," crowds called British soldiers cowards and dared them to fire. They fired, killing five men in an incident that would become known as the Boston Massacre. A few years later, independence-minded polemicists called those who remained loyal to the Crown or advocated neutrality cowardly. In 1777, one Massachusetts minister exhorted his congregation to "gird on the sword of the Lord and of Gideon, and determine to conquer or die! ... Do not let us hear of any of you who behave like cowards."

But of course some men did behave like cowards. The problem came up for the Continental Army as soon as it was formed out of a motley of colonial militias in 1775. One of Washington's first official acts upon taking over the Army was to approve the court-martial for cowardice of John Callender, who had not acquitted himself well at Bunker Hill. When general Israel Putnam found him pulling two cannons away from the battle, Callender told him that his men had fallen back and that he was retreating. Putnam asked him on whose authority, and Callender said his own. He also claimed that he was out of cartridges. Finding that Callender did indeed have cartridges, Putnam drew his pistol and ordered him to return with the cannons to the Bunker Hill lines. Callender reluctantly did, only to abandon his artillery soon thereafter, and disappear. He was found guilty of cowardice and "dismissed from all further service in the Continental Army as an officer." Looking back on this episode several weeks later, Washington noted, "I have made a pretty good Slam among such kind of officers as the Massachusetts Government [a]bound in since I came to this Camp, having broke [Callender and two other officers] for Cowardly beh[avior in] the action on Bunker's Hill."

Callender's story does not end there, though, for he voluntarily remained with his unit and, as Samuel Swett's early nineteenth-century account put it, "desperately exposed himself in every action." At the Battle of Long Island in 1776, he fought so fiercely that he won the admiration of a British officer who kept his men from killing him, an incident commemorated in a centennial sketch that appeared in Harper's magazine in 1876. Callender was held prisoner for more than a year until he was exchanged. Upon his release, Washington gave him "his hand and his cordial thanks," expunged his court-martial, and reinstated his officership. Swett presents Callender as a "glorious instance of the buoyancy of genuine heroism and the redeeming efficacy of 'the mind conscious of rectitude.'" His story presented an enduring object lesson in the bracing utility of the shame of cowardice.

When late 1776 brought a winter of defeat and doubt to the independence forces, the coward remained a favored bogeyman in Revolutionary era rhetoric. "These are the times that try men's souls," Tom Paine wrote to begin The Crisis, and then he introduced a theme he wove throughout this document: "The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country." In the dark hours of this war, as in the previous one, the "curse" of cowardice loomed: "The heart that feels not now is dead," Paine wrote; "the blood of his children will curse his cowardice, who shrinks back at a time when a little might have saved the whole...." Stamping as cowardly those who failed to fight the British was an integral part of forming a new nation under the banner of courage.

A similar pattern obtained in the War of 1812. The United States had a variety of motives—on the one hand resentment about the British blockade of Europe, about the impressment of men on American ships into the Royal Navy, and about the provision of weapons and other material support to Native American enemies; on the other a desire to annex Canada—but the idea of cowardice played its part. As the Washington National Intelligencer argued, "The final step ought to be taken, and that step is WAR.... Any further discussion, any new attempt at negotiation, would be as fruitless as it would be dishonorable." Delay was cowardly, as was the objection that "we are not prepared for war, and ought therefore not to declare it. This is an idle objection, which can have weight with the timid and pusillanimous only." The Intelligencer's statement was published on April 14, 1812. War was officially declared in June.

In 1814, watching the Americans repel a British attempt to take Baltimore, Francis Scott Key wrote "Defence of Fort McHenry," which in its third stanza disparages the British forces as mercenary or conscripted: "No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave." The cowardice implied in the text of what would come to be known as the "Star-Spangled Banner" formed a fitting contrast to buttress the celebration of the "home of the brave."

A few decades later, the fear or shame of cowardice helped propel the United States into war with itself. As early as the 1840s abolitionists were touting disunion as "preferable to immoral compromises and cowardly submission."21 During the Kansas crisis of 1856, a New York paper lamented "the bullying of the slaveocracy, ... impudently taunting the entire north with cowardice." On the proslavery side in that same year, the Montgomery Advertiser exhorted its readers to confront Northerners' insulting criticism of slavery in a manly way, not "shrink from it like cowards."

The rhetoric of cowardice grew more heated as war approached. Southerners who were against secession had good reason to worry that their appeals for prudence and dialog would be called cowardice. In December 1860, the Georgian Henry Jackson said that secessionists must "cow" the hesitating "cowards" among them, "[f]or if we retreat an inch, the cowardly ... will take to their heels...." Northerners who were willing to compromise with the slaveholding states could also be subject to the charge of cowardice. Frederick Douglass even went so far as to credit Southerners for their misguided bravery and to excoriate Northerners as "miserable cowards, insensible alike to the requirements of self-respect or duty. Was ever a people so terribly frightened as are we ... at this moment?" As Abraham Lincoln was campaigning for the presidency he was deeply wary of "men who would like to frighten me, or, at least, fix upon me the character of timidity and cowardice." It was around this time that Lincoln first grew a beard.

After war began, it was not ideology or a desire for glory that made men attack a fortification or hold their position when under assault. "The force that compelled them," as Bell Wiley put it, "above all else, was the thought of family and friends and the unwillingness to be branded cowards"—an unwillingness, as have seen in the introduction, that was the subject of many of their letters home. When soldiers measured themselves in battle, they were quicker to damn themselves as cowardly than to praise themselves as courageous, and the damnation seemed to have a staying power that the praise lacked. While a belief in their courage could be undone by one cowardly act, shame about cowardice was not so easily dispelled.

The sectional conflict was welcomed by some who thought it would help cure cowardly inclinations on their own side. In a note of consolation to the mother of Robert Gould Shaw, after her wealthy and refined son had died leading the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry into battle, Henry Ward Beecher wrote, "Our young men seemed ignoble; the faith of old heroic times had died ... but the trumpet of this war sounded the call and O! how joyful has been the sight of such unexpected nobleness in our young men!" Southern whites considered war a way to "put aside luxuries and idleness," as Bertram Wyatt-Brown put it, "vices that weakened resolve."

At the beginning of the war the prevailing belief that the enemy was cowardly made some on each side eager to do battle and confident of victory. The Confederates thought business and prosperity made the Yankees soft, and the Yankees thought the Confederates weak dandies who made their slaves do all the hard labor. The experience of actual battle fairly quickly disabused many soldiers of the belief in the enemy's cowardice. When it turned out that both sides generally put up a good fight, it was hard to label either cowardly. The first battle of Bull Run, though, with the Federals panicking and rushing off the field, seemed to confirm to some on both sides that the Northerners were more cowardly than the Southerners, and it has been argued that Confederate soldiers felt for the duration of the war that the average Yankee lacked the character to be a real soldier—a feeling that contributed to Southern soldiers' belief in their invincibility.

The military justice system reinforced the prevailing belief that nothing was more shameful than cowardice. Of the nearly one hundred thousand Union general court-martial cases on file at the National Archives, cowardice was the ninth most common charge, with roughly five hundred cases. And other offenses, such as desertion (by far the most common charge), shameful abandonment of post, and self-mutilation often carried with them the implication of cowardice. As we shall see, soldiers convicted of such crimes were often humiliated and imprisoned, sometimes physically branded or even executed.

Since most Confederate court-martial records have been lost, it is impossible to compare the official military attitudes and practices regarding cowardice in the North and the South. Some Civil War scholars emphasize how similar the general and military populations and their mores were; clearly both sides had strong feelings about cowardice. But the Confederate attitudes seem to have been more extreme. In 1861, having been jokingly accused of cowardice by some of his comrades-in-arms, one Alabama recruit, Charles P. Robinson, replied that he "would show them how a Roman could die," and then stabbed himself in either side of the neck and bled to death. In 1865 a Confederate seaman named Marion Stevens twice tried to kill himself, the second time—with a pistol to his head—successfully. As the Richmond Daily Dispatch reported, "It is believed that the act was committed in consequence of deep mortification existing in the mind of the deceased at being, some time since, reduced from a lieutenant's position to a private in the ranks on the charge of cowardice."

Even more than their white counterparts, black Union soldiers worried about being thought cowardly. The popular belief among whites was that, while blacks were capable of reckless aggression—savagery, that is—they would falter in the face of sustained danger. And so they often went to battle with such enthusiasm that no one could ever charge them of cowardice. There were cases in which black soldiers were so charged, but a far more common problem for officers of "colored troops" was holding their men back.


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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Chapter 1 Profiles in Cowardice: A Shadow History of the Home of the Brave 23

Chapter 2 Of Arms and Men 45

Chapter 3 The Ways of Excessive Fear 77

Chapter 4 Duty-Bound 100

Chapter 5 The Rise of the Therapeutic 131

Chapter 6 So Long a File: Cowardice Away from War 165

Acknowledgments 195

Notes 199

Bibliography 249

Illustration Credits 277

Index 281

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"With impressive insight and sensitivity, Chris Walsh holds up for careful examination one of war's last remaining taboos. That Cowardice simultaneously illuminates and discomfits is a mark of its success."—Andrew J. Bacevich, author of The Limits of Power and Breach of Trust

"We think we know the face of courage, but do we dare look into the face of fear? In Cowardice, Chris Walsh leads us on a journey from Dante's Inferno to Joseph Heller's Catch-22, with wide-ranging stops in between to examine this most taboo of emotions in life and literature. Sifting evidence from many disciplines, as well as accounts of desertions, derelictions, and courts-martial from more than three centuries, Walsh offers a nuanced and humane portrait of the feeling that may remind us most—and most uncomfortably—of our humanity."—Megan Marshall, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life

"Thoughtful, penetrating, erudite, and gracefully written, Chris Walsh's analysis of cowardice sheds new light on an ancient and momentous human obsession."—Steven Pinker, author of How the Mind Works and The Better Angels of Our Nature

"There is a tough argument at the heart of this brilliant little book, but what will keep readers turning the pages is Walsh's astonishing resourcefulness as a reader (there is a surprise on almost every page) and the wisdom and lucidity of his style. Unexpected, unnerving in a way, yet wonderful."—Jack Miles, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of God: A Biography

"This is a probing look at the role cowardice plays in life. Ranging widely through literature and history, Cowardice has a freshness that is at once stylistic and substantive. Walsh demonstrates the formidable presence of cowardice and the imagination and effort required to live courageously."—Eugene Goodheart, Brandeis University

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