Friday, March 28, 2014

Just Finished Reading - The Soldier's Pen

I truly believe that it is essential to read primary sources in order to comprehend (as much as possible) the experiences that Civil War soldiers endured. When I say primary sources, I mean the letters, diaries, and journals generated at the time these events were happening by the men out fighting in the field. Sometimes authors of secondary sources rely on post-war memoirs, which are often clouded by time, faulty memories, and postbellum politics.

Many books containing collections of soldiers' letters are available to readers. Some are published journals or diaries of a single soldier, others are compilations that discuss a specific topic. The Soldier's Pen: Firsthand Impressions of the Civil War, edited by Robert E. Bonner, does neither. Instead, this fantastic book gives a soldier's eye-view through the duration of the war by providing excerpts from 16 combatants, 11 of which were Union and five who were Confederate. One of the Union soldiers was African American. All of the documents used come from the Gilder Lehrman collection.

The diversity of the soldiers chosen for study is certainly a strength of the book. According to Bonner "six of the men lived in the slave states in 1860, three were slaveholders, two came from relatively modest means, and one, a Kentucky Unionist, joined the Federal Army and became an enthusiastic recruiter of black soldiers. Among the ten soldiers from the free states were a free African-American from Syracuse, New York, a German-speaking artist from Manhattan, a Republican editor from rural Illinois, an anonymous satirist from Massachusetts, and an assortment of farmers and workers of differing ages, incomes, and levels of education."

Bonner provides an excellent and insightful introduction for the book. He then covers a diversity of soldier experiences: combat, homesickness, fatigue duties, physical illness, boredom, allegiances, rumors, politics, and much more, over six chapters by drawing on those experiences through the soldiers' own words. The final chapter, "Relics of War," provides a nice conclusion.

I was happy to find that Kentucky receives a fair amount of mention in The Soldier's Pen. As stated above, one of the soldiers' group of letters used by Bonner was a Kentucky Unionist. William Brunt was actually born in England, but had moved to the Ohio River town of Hawesville, Kentucky before the war. Brunt initially joined an Illinois regiment in 1862, and then was appointed to captain in the 16th USCT. Part of Brunt's duty landed him in Clarksville, Tennessee, where he oversaw a contraband camp. While there in the summer of 1864 Brunt wrote home to his wife. His sentiments were certainly not that of the majority of white Kentuckians, but Brunt's non-native status probably explains why.  He wrote:

"Well Martha Ky feel the smart a little, I think, for two thirds of those Contrabands in my charge are from Ky - I had a ritch joke on a Loyal son of Ky a week before last. Peter Threet of Todd Co Ky came here to get a family of his mothers slaves to return home with him - he plead in vain - they would no go. He then offered me 250 Dollars in Green Backs & said he would give me more if I would persuade them to go home & pledged himself to keep it a profound secret. I let him plead, not taking any offence at the proposition so that I could draw him out fully. I then flattly refused to accept the bribe - telling him it was principle - not money that I came into the service for. He hoped he had not hurt my feelings I told him no he had not - for I expected all Ky loyalists to violate all Federal Orders that did not suit their interest. I judge other mens loyalties by their own hearts. He then begged me not to report him - I told him I cam to do my duty - & so far I have done it regardless of the Commander of the Post, he had him arrested & Threet says he did not offer me the money as a bribe. . . .

Our camp is thorn in the side of Ky for their slaves come here by the score and the able bodied men go into the army. . . . I send the children to school . . . using the fine College building for the Contraband school - that galls the secesh here, they think it an outrage, to take the building erected to educate their children in & use it to educate their slaves in. But I tell them it is just - for many of the scholars are their illegitmate children & have as good a right morally as the legitimate ones. . . .

I am in glory now, I used to be called an abolitionist. I am one now practically. Please send me your Photograph Marttha. Give my love to Each & all your folks. Write soon & Direct to Capt. Brunt Box 442 Clarksville Tenn.

Yours Truly in Universal Freedom,

Although this just one of the many letters included in the book, it shows the many issues that concerned soldiers.

If you are looking for book that lets you see the war in the many different ways that the soldiers saw it then The Soldier's Pen is for you. I highly recommend it.  On a five point scale, I give it a full five.        

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