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."

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