Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Letters From the Storm

Not all Civil War soldier's letter collections are created equal. Some have greater value for their candidness, some have greater value for their variety of subject matter, and some have greater value for their clarity in writing. Letters From the Storm: The Intimate Civil War Letters of Lt. J. A. H. Foster, 155th Pennsylvania Volunteers, by Linda Foster Arden and edited by Walter L. Powell is of great value for all of the above, and more.

I first heard about Foster's collection of letters while attending the Gettysburg College Civil War Institute last summer when Peter Carmichael referred to to them in his excellent talk about common Civil War soldiers. Letters from the Storm is made up of just over 100 letters written by Lt. Foster spanning from October 1862 to April 1865. Also included are a handful of other letters from family members, including Foster's wife Mary Jane, and family friends. It is sad that more letters do not survive from Mary Jane to get her thoughts and perspective on the home front.

Foster, a 28 year old husband, and relatively new father, hailed from Rural Village, Pennsylvania, in the western part of the state. The 155th was part of the Army of the Potomac's V Corps. The regiment was organized in September 1862 and barely missed out the fight at Antietam, but participated in Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg (where Foster was wounded at Little Round Top), the brutal Overland Campaign, and the Petersburg Campaign.

Much of Foster's letters contain the subjects that many soldiers discussed: food, clothing, footwear, shelter, army politics, campaigning, and health issues, among many others. However, in at least one aspect, Foster's letters differ greatly from the majority of soldier's writings that have survived. This is probably due to the fact the Foster never intended for his letters to be read by anyone other than Mary Jane. In many of Foster's letters he covertly (but not too covertly) mentions his desire for sexual intimacy with his wife. He does so most of time through code names for his and Mary Jane's private parts, but occasionally he gets very descriptive about his desires and in sharing intimate thoughts. It makes one reading these thoughts and emotions of now dead people think twice if they are not intruding into this couple's private sphere. I honestly felt a little guilty for reading some of the letters.

Other concerns that dominate Foster's writings are his disdain for his company captain's perceived incompetency, his attempt to receive a first lieutenant's commission, his desire for information on his infant son Ira, and his efforts to gain an army role away from combat. Foster was eventually successful with the later goal in that he was detached to serve guard duty for the V Corps hospital at City Point beginning in December 1864 through the end of the war, thus missing V Corps spring fights at White Oak Road, Five Forks, and the Appomattox Campaign.

Letters from the Storm is a superb collection of letters that give us insights into soldier actions and emotions we do not normally get. And while these letters between husband and wife were not intended for our eyes, we are fortunate they have survived to show that perhaps, in some ways, people of the Civil War era were not so different from us 150 years later. I highly recommend Letters From the Storm.

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