Embattled Courage The Experience of Combat In The American Civil War By Gerald F. Linderman Free Press. 357 pp. $22.50

COURAGE HAD "for Civil War soldiers a narrow, rigid, and powerful meaning: heroic action undertaken without fear." With that creed, Gerald Linderman tells us, "sons of farmers and landholding gentry; . . . of small-town shopkeepers and mechanics; . . . of city artisans and of commercial and intellectual elites" went to war. White, native-born and, if not rich, then "confident of their ability to gain that status," his soldiers were a God-fearing lot, imbued with a deep sense of morality. The author sees no importance in whether these volunteers of 1861-62 were in the Confederate or the Union army; they began the war, he claims, with great expectations. Those who lived to see its end did so by disillusioned enduring.

As they fought in increasingly more hideous battles, their idealism -- respect for their enemy, respect for their God, and above all love of their comrades -- yielded. Instead there was savage destruction of the foe and pillaging of the countryside they campaigned across. Godliness gave way as well: "At the beginning of the war every soldier had a Testament in his pocket; three years later there was not a half dozen in each regiment." "Hardest to accept was the destruction of comradeship" as, with numbed grief, they watched die those whose friendship they had valued over all else. All went sour. "The poor fellow was lying in the snow . . . , shot through the abdomen and . . .writhing in pain . . . How could I look on him wholly without feeling?" wrote one man. "And yet I did just that. No one who has not felt it knows what a brutaliser war is!"

Linderman's sobering, profound inquiry into the corrosive effect of war on the men who fight it is precisely the book about the Civil War that we need. There has been far too much of the "Battles and Leaders" approach to the telling of the terrible tale of that war; too much of an ascent toward glory. This reviewer has some reservations about the author's analysis, none about his unrelenting look into the minds of men in combat. Linderman has no interest in the war's causes and none in its results other than as they expressed a betrayal of what the men initially fought for. His contempt for the civilians who imagined the war into something it never was is virtually total. His respect for the men who did the fighting is only underscored by his unflinching awareness of what war did to diminish them.

Embattled Courage, with its elegiac tone, comes close to serving an end that, one senses, its author did not intend. A splash of patriotism, which could so easily be appropriated by a present-day civilian eager to send others off to war, lurks in Linderman's conviction that his men began the war so thoroughly imbued with virtue. It would seem logical that a nation that could produce men as fine as these must have been a very good nation indeed. But the 1850s, when these soldiers were coming of age, were not good times. The nation was by then fully conscious that a monstrous or benevolent institution (depending on one's point of view), slavery, flourished in a vast region within it. No peaceful way either to get rid of or to sustain bondage was found. Instead, as it threatened to reach still farther, guerrilla warfare broke out in Kansas, there were terrorist attacks across the Missouri border and at Harper's Ferry, Va., and people seeking their freedom were hunted down by agents of the national government. One wonders, then, whence came this "Manliness, godliness, duty, honor, knightliness {which} constituted . . . the values that Union and Confederate volunteers were determined to express through their actions on the battlefield." Was the republic of 1861 truly able to foster such virtues, or, as so many have argued, did it require a war for them to be displayed? THAT WAR came, and it was a display case of cracked glass. Quoting from his soldiers' letters, diaries and memoirs, Linderman forces us to face the grim details not only of the excruciating pain with which many of these men died, but of the destruction of their ideals. Linderman, who has written of the Spanish-American War in The Mirror of War, knows that wars differ and so do the minds of the men who fight them. So highly does Linderman value the particular concept of courage of the Civil War soldier and so critical is he of the way war debased that virtue that he might well have given more consideration to two briefly-mentioned critics of the Civil War, Rebecca Harding Davis (identified only as the mother of Richard Harding Davis, a far lesser writer than she) and Clarence King.

Linderman claims that one reason an unrealistic, glorified picture of the Civil War has been perpetuated is that the grasping substitute-buying moneymakers like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and J. Pierpont Morgan captured the postwar peace and gave it a bad name. No one wrote better about the degradation of workers by exploiting capitalists than Davis in Life in the Iron Mills; perhaps she sensed how war, too, could degrade. Similarly, Linderman dismisses a fellow writer about courage, Clarence King, as one who probably felt guilty when a close friend and fellow athlete went off to war -- and to death -- while King stayed home. In 1873 in Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, King wrote as powerfully about courage as any writer in our literature. His setting was the mountains where a climber on one of his exploring expeditions risked his life in order to inspire in King sufficient courage to make a perilous climb. Linderman's book leaves us wondering not only if courage was the only imperative that took men to war (what about the chance to get away from a boring farm, from mother, which they would be unlikely to write about candidly?) but also if war is truly the natural habitat of any virtue. :: William S. McFeely, author of "Grant: A Biography," teaches history at the University of Georgia.