Friday, January 18, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Corporal Si Klegg and His Pard

I've had Corporal Si Klegg and His Pard by Willbur F. Hinman sitting on my "to be read" bookshelf for almost 20 years. It was referred to me way back when by a Civil War reenacting friend as a good look into the world of common soldiers. For whatever reason, over the years I kept passing it up for other books. I suppose part of it is that it is quite a hefty read, coming in right at 700 pages. Another reason for shying away for so long may be that it is a fictionalized account.

However, if I had taken the time to at least scratch its surface I would have learned that it was written by a veteran who was fully aware of the various soldiers' situations he works into the book. Wilbur Fisk Hinman served in the 65th Ohio Infantry in the Western Theater from 1861 to 1865, working his way through the ranks from private to major.

Personalities from Hinman's actual army career closely mirror those of the main protagonists in his fictional book. Josiah Klegg's made up Company Q of the 200th Indiana observes and experiences many of the same things that Hinman's 65th Ohio saw and did. To provide helpful context to the story that Hinman weaves, and to better understand Hinman's own service, an excellent introductory essay, written by the late historian Brian Pohanka shows the similarity of the fictional and the factual. Hinman published Corporal Si Klegg and His Pard in book form in 1887, but it first appeared in the pages of The National Tribune in serial form.

Throughout the book's 700 pages one gets an accurate account of so many facets of soldier life. Here we learn about the urge to enlist, how soldiers learned to whittle down their loads to the bare minimum, how they cooked their food, how they survived the rain and cold, how they experienced combat, and so much more. One of the few distractions of the book for me is that much of the character dialogue is written in dialect. In what I suppose is meant to be a mid-western Hoosier dialect, it reads as southern or Appalachian to my ear. Perhaps, at that time, the two regions' form of speech was not all that different. One of several outstanding positives that the book points out is the sharp learning curve that many men experienced with the transition from civilian to soldier. Hinman often uses these situations to show the value soldiers placed on humor and its ability to help the men cope.

Despite being published over 140 years ago, Corporal Si Klegg and His Pard stands the test of time as an excellent and informative source for insight into the common soldiers' experience. I highly recommend it.

Here are a few passages I found particularly striking:

"Just before dark several wagon loads of green oak logs had been dumped at various points through the camp. After long effort, that exhausted the patience of several successive 'reliefs,' a few feeble fires were started. Around these, wet and shivering and blinded by smoke, the disconsolate men . . .crowded and elbowed one another. Patriotism was at zero."

On first experience eating hardtack: "Wall - I'll - be - durned! I didn't spose I'd got ter live on sich low-down fodder as that. The guvyment must think I'm a grist-mill. I'd jest as soon be a billy-goat n eat circus-posters n tomater cans n old hoopskirts."

"The soldiers always yelled on the slighted provocation. Day or night, in camp or on the march, they exercised their lungs whenever anything gave them an excuse for doing so. If a favorite general came in sight he received a boisterous greeting; if a frightened 'cotton-tail' rabbit started up it was enough to set a whole division yelling. One of those mighty choruses would sweep in a tumultuous wave for miles through a great camp or along a marching column, when not one man in ten had any idea what he was yelling at or about."

"And so, hour after hour, the ghastly work goes on, amidst screams and groans and sights that are wrenched from unwilling lips. There are men with mutilated faces - an eye gone, and ear torn off, a jaw crushed to fragments. Charging through that leaden hail, necks and shoulders were torn by hissing balls. Here are men with pierced lungs - men through whose bodies in every part, bullets have passed. Many of those thus stricken down lie where they fell, on the rugged side of yonder ridge or beside the cannon that belched from its summit. These yet survive their awful wounds."

Monday, January 14, 2019

The Road to Now

Although at time I found it quite challenging, my graduate school experience was a couple of the best years of my life. The seeds of my historical thinking skills were planted in my undergraduate experience at East Tennessee State University, but it was while working on my M.A. at Appalachian State University that they began to grow and blossom. I think a large part of that development was the amazing friends I made during those two years. Those of us in the program shared a lot of time together outside of our classroom experience discussing historical topics, challenging each others' interpretations, defending our own claims, and all the while expanding our knowledge and sharing a load of laughs.

One of the many dear friends I met at Appalachian State is Ben Sawyer. Ben and I come from about as different of backgrounds as possible, but our passion for history forms our our common ground. After graduating together, I went into public history and Ben went on earn his Ph.D. at Michigan State, and a is currently teaching at Middle Tennessee State. Ben is a man of many talents. He is one of the quickest and wittiest thinkers I know. Both gifts have helped him in a couple of his "side hustles." In his spare time, he works as a stand-up comedian in Nashville, and he co-hosts a popular history podcast, The Road to Now.

The latest episode of the Road to Now, "American Slavery with Edward Baptist," is now available for your listening and learning pleasure. I posted about Baptist's book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, a couple of years ago due to the strong impression the book made on me.

So, if you enjoy listening to history podcasts, please consider adding the Road to Now to your list. Happy listening!

Friday, January 11, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Intensely Human

Over the last decade or so, scholarly studies have provided us with a wealth of information on black Civil War soldiers. Rather recent regimental histories, battle accounts, post-war studies, and even healthcare-focused works give students a richer idea than ever before about how United States Colored Troops experienced their military service.

Intensely Human: The Health of the Black Soldier in the American Civil War by Margaret Humphreys, examines the quality of healthcare provided to USCT men. Black Union soldiers died of disease at a significantly higher rate than their white comrades. Humphreys attempts to explain why this was true. She puts forward several causes for higher black mortality.

First, black troops were often sent to some of the most unhealthy regions of the conflict. Once there, USCTs were far more likely than their white comrades to be relegated to exhaustive labor details, like building roads, fortifications, repairing railroads, and clearing timber. Such labor intensive responsibilities combined with poor nutrition dropped soldiers' immune levels and subjected the men to a wide range of diseases. Cases of typhoid, dysentery, pulmonary issues, and small pox ravaged black troops, especially those in coastal South Carolina, southern Georgia/northern Florida, and Louisiana.

A second factor that Humphreys discusses at length is that many army physicians of the era, much like the larger white population, held racist views. Many whites of the period not only thought that blacks were intellectually and socially inferior to whites, they also believed that blacks were innately not as healthy as whites. This belief too often led to physicians' neglecting to properly treat black troops, thinking that their efforts were often in vain due to blacks' natural inability to fight off disease. Other contributing factors to high rates of USCT disease and mortality included inadequate shelter and clothing issues.

Using a number of primary sources, including archival collections from the United States Sanitary Commission, white officers' personal letters, and black soldiers' letters to black newspapers back in their home communities, Humphreys offers readers sad insights into cases of neglect and needless suffering. Perhaps Intensely Human's saddest chapter is chapter seven, which describes the transfer of numerous USCT regiments to the Texas/Mexico border after the war's end to serve out their enlistment periods. There black soldiers suffered from a lack of drinkable water and a severe shortage of fruits and vegetables, which led to a dramatic spike in cases of scurvy, and ultimately soldier deaths.

While Humphreys focuses largely on the failures and neglect of black soldier healthcare within the Union army, it would made for a more thorough study to have filled out this rather slim volume with additional information on the African American physicians, nurses, and orderlies, who toiled without recognition, as well as coverage of the more successful USCT healthcare facilitates that treated black soldiers.

Intensely Human is a fine addition to the ever-growing body of USCT scholarship and an important read for any student of the Civil War. I recommend it.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Just Finished Reading - The War for the Common Soldier

It's always pleasing when a much anticipated book actually delivers. Peter S. Carmichael's The War for the Common Soldier: How Men Thought, Fought, and Survived in Civil War Armies brings the scholarly spotlight back to focus on the men who served out on the firing line, the picket line, in camp, in the hospitals, in prisons, and sometimes on the lam.

In this book Carmichael contends that soldiers attempted to meet the demands of their military commitments by exercising a healthy does of pragmatism. Often found being stretched between the ideals and principles of mid-nineteenth century manhood (duty, honor, commitment, and sentimentalism) and the realities of soldiering (exhausting marches, inclement weather, bad food, and the sheer hell of battle) men attempted to find practical ways to cope.

To illustrate how men exercised pragmatism Carmichael incorporates a number of case studies taken from several soldiers' primary sources. While a few of these case studies come from published accounts known to well-read Civil War students, such as those of Alabamian Joshua Callaway and New Yorker Charles Biddlecom, most are probably more unfamiliar examples that the author expertly examines and deftly interprets to show the human side of soldiering. Included are a couple that offer African American soldiers' perspectives.

Upon enlistment, soldiers learned rather quickly that their old worlds, where perhaps they had an individual say and experienced a high level of liberty, had suddenly vanished. Now, in place of their previous civilian worlds, where consistency gave way to uncertainly and comforts gave way to torment, they had to learn how to balance life-ling principles and ideals with survival in order to maintain their mental and physical well being.

Of course, soldiers who came from diverse pre-war life experiences found different ways to pragmatically cope with soldier life. Just like us today, some people then were optimists and some people were pessimists. Some people were able to withstand tremendous amounts of stress and others broke with the first test. However, as Carmichael summarizes nicely in the book's epilogue: "Within this turbulent and often oppressive environment, soldiers came to see the necessity of being adaptive in thought and action. Quite simply, they became pragmatic. Pragmatism was not a word that soldiers used, let alone defined, but its presence was felt. Pragmatism assumed innumerable forms and permeated all aspects of military life, but it did not lead men on either side to disavow Christianity, reject ideological beliefs, abandon sentimentalism, or scrap their conceptions of history as a divinely ordained march toward progress." A good example is many Union soldiers' evolving views on slavery. Often after northern men who had little experience with slavery saw it in practice as Union armies penetrated the South, and saw that slavery provided a valuable labor supply to the Confederate army, they came to the understanding and conclusion that slavery had to be destroyed in order to defeat the rebellion.

Perhaps the most fascinating chapter in the book is chapter seven, which looks at soldiers' use of war-time material culture relics and souvenirs as ways of identifying with their time in military service.

The War for the Common Soldier is the perfect blending of military and social history. It is also a timely book in that it not only helps us better understand how Civil War soldiers met the demands of what they were asked to do, but it also prompts us to think about the ways that our nation's current soldiers sacrifice their comforts for our greater good. I most highly recommend it.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Recent Acquisitions to My Library

I was able to catch Barbara Gannon's talk at Pamplin Historical Park's annual Symposium in person this past October. I was both impressed with her talk, and intrigued by her research topic. The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic is the result of that research. The G.A.R. rose to increasingly political importance at roughly the same time that Jim Crow segregation was gaining ground. What effect would this have on the veteran's organization and its black and white members? With the fall lecture whetting my intellectual appetite, I'm looking forward to getting a fuller meal with this book. 

I've mentioned on here several times that I don't read much historical fiction, but I happened to hear about a novel titled The Good Lord Bird by James McBride. It is apparently about an African American boy who seems to be mistaken as a girl by John Brown during an 1857 raid on the Kansas-Missouri borderlands and is taken along on a grand adventure ending up at Harper's Ferry. Being that the story involves John Brown, I couldn't help myself from wanting to see how this particular story plays out and how the author depicts Brown.   

Too often I get drawn into purchasing a book by its title. That is, after all, partly the intention of the author and publisher. While this is not necessarily the reason I obtained Jason Phillips's Looming Civil War: How Nineteenth-Century Americans Imagined the Future, you have to admit it is a title that piques the interest. We often look at history with hindsight, not as the people at the time experienced the present and hoped for the future. If Looming Civil War is of the same high quality as Phillip's previous work, Die Hard Rebels: The Confederate Culture of Invincibility, I will certainly be pleased with adding it to my library. 

Just as I sometimes buy books based on their titles, I often seek out new works to read by authors whose previous publications I enjoyed. The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War by Aaron Sheehan-Dean is receiving a number of positive reviews. Like Jason Phillips's previously mentioned book, I too enjoyed reading Sheehan-Dean's earlier work, Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia, which was published a little over a decade ago. I'm obviously looking forward to getting the author's interpretive take on the whether the Civil War was a limited conflict or a total war; something historians have seemingly been arguing since the guns went silent.

I've been trying to sprinkle my scholarly-focused readings with occasional drops of soldiers' letters. And, after enjoying part of my recent honeymoon in Vermont, I've been interested in learning more about that state's soldiers' experiences. It seems that Voices from the Attic: The Wiliamstown Boys in the Civil War by Carleton Young lets me kills two birds with one stone. Young builds his book around a discovered cache of two brothers' letters. These war-time missives help him tell the story of the Vermont Brigade's Civil War experience, and promises to provide an educating read.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Just Finished Reading - The Blood of Emmett Till

The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson is a fine follow up to his two previous Civil Rights era-focused books. I first read Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power over a decade ago. And his second book, Blood Done Sign My Name: A True Story, offers a 1970 North Carolina lynching which makes for some difficult reading, too.

The Blood of Emmett Till explores the infamous lynching of this 14 year old Chicago boy while visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta in 1955.

Tyson attempts to reconstruct not only the grocery store incident in Money, Mississippi, that resulted in Till's death, he also poignantly provides significant contextual information about why Till's killers felt bold enough to commit the terrible murder with so little fear of legal prosecution. Tyson's examinations of the murders of George Lee and Lamar Smith, and also that attempted murder of Gus Courts, all who were advocates for black voting rights in Mississippi, provided Till's killers with a high level of confidence that they would not be convicted by an all white male jury of their peers.

Tyson also spends considerable effort debunking the belief that Till, a Chicagoan, did not know about Southern racial mores. Till's mother was born in Mississippi, and although it was not as blatantly racist as the Magnolia State in 1955, the Windy City knew its own fair share of racial violence. Till was widely aware of what it meant to be African American in 1950s America. Till's mother, too, had warned the young man before he left about what to do and not to do while visiting relatives down South. Why Till chose to ignore her advice is unknown, perhaps he was just a 14 year old being a 14 year old, but as his mother stated, "Nothing that boy did could every justify what happened to him."

The brutality of the murder is on full display in the book's pages. However, it also tells of the bravery that Till's mother displayed in having a open-coffin funeral to show the world what white supremacy did to her son, and her courage to attend and testify at the killers' trial. These actions show how strong of a woman she truly was. Similarly, Till's uncle, Moses Wright's testimony against the two white men literally jeopardized his life. Regardless, he stood up bravely and pointed at the men who had taken Till from his home that August 1955 night.

Till's tragic story helped galvanize the evolving Civil Rights Movement. It was after all in the weeks following the acquittal of Till's murderers that Rosa Parks explained that she drew upon an inner strength pulled partly from Till's brutal killing that she refused to give up her seat on her Montgomery, Alabama bus.

Over 60 years removed from Till's murder, our society is still not free of racism. However, as James Baldwin once told us, only by facing our past, especially the ugly past, can we hope to change for the better. The Blood of Emmett Till helps us face that ugly past. I highly recommend it.