Monday, August 25, 2014

Influential Books


Yesterday, Eric Wittenberg posted his list of ten influential books on his Rantings of a Civil War Historian blog. Inspired by his list, I decided to list history books that have influenced me throughout my life. Unlike his list, mine sticks only to history books; they are listed in the order that they were published.

Fox, William F. Regimental Losses In The American Civil, 1861-1865. (1898)
Those of you who are regular followers know that this is one of my all time favorite books. From the moment I received a Morningside reprint edition as a Christmas gift in 1978 I was hooked. There is an amazing amount of information about regiments (particularly Union ones) in the book, and Fox’s accounts of the “300 Fighting Regiments” have always fascinated me. This book helped foster an early interest in unit histories.

Abel, Annie Heloise. The American Indian as Slaveholder and Secessionist. (1915)
Abel, Annie Heloise. The American Indian in the Civil War, 1862-1865. (1919)
Abel, Annie Heloise. The American Indian and the End of the Confederacy, 1863-1866 (1925)

Abel’s trilogy was groundbreaking when it was published and still stands as the standard source on the topic. The books focus on the Five Civilized Tribes (Creek, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole) and their plight in the Indian Territory. She dug deep in primary sources—in fact, her footnotes often take up more of a page than the actual text. Her books would be more useful now if some hardy scholar would modernize her citations. Since the early twentieth century, many of the collections that she used have been renamed and some have been microfilmed. Tracking down her resources can be quite challenging and sometimes requires great expertise in the subject area.

Wiley, Bell Irvin. The Life of Johnny Reb. (1943)
Wiley, Bell Irvin, The Life of Billy Yank. (1952)

Look through Wiley’s endnotes sometime, think about the time period when he did his research, and be amazed. Dr. Wiley combed archives nationwide in a time when there was no internet, no photocopier, no personal computer…I salute you Dr. Wiley, for you were a truly indefatigable researcher. Wiley chronicled both the good and the bad traits of Union and Confederate soldiers in an evenhanded, understanding, and sometimes humorous manner.

Catton, Bruce. Mr. Lincoln’s Army. (1951)
Catton, Bruce. Glory Road. (1952)
Catton, Bruce. A Stillness at Appomattox. (1953)

I almost wore the covers off of my used copies of Catton’s “Army of the Potomac” trilogy when I was in high school. Catton’s writing skill is rightfully praised but have you ever studied his endnotes? For me, they opened the door to the many regimental histories that he used. My favorite of the trilogy is Mr. Lincoln's Army and its depiction of eager but raw soldiers as they learn about the true nature of war.

Pullen, John J. The Twentieth Maine. (1957)
When I was in junior school, I went to a “garage sale” at a local university and found a pocketbook copy of Pullen’s book for a dime. It was missing its cover, but my mom made a cardboard cover for it that I proudly decorated with colored pens. Feeling extra artistic, I also colored in many of the black and white drawings inside the book. Pullen analyzed the characteristics of a volunteer regiment that he considered to be made up of ordinary men, and, yet, they achieved extraordinary things at Gettysburg.

Catton, Bruce. American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War. (1960) Like many others, I pored over the hundreds of illustrations in this book, and those maps…very cool!

Frassanito, William A. Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America’s Bloodiest Day. (1978)
Frassanito’s photographic books are obviously labors of love and models of detective work. This one is my favorite because of his vignettes of ordinary soldiers who fought at Antietam. These humanize the book and show clearly the tragedy of war.

Keegan, John. The Face of Battle (1983).
A graduate school professor urged us to read this book, and I’m glad that I took his advice. Keegan called for a “bottom up” focus on the common soldier rather than the traditional “top down” military history approach. His case studies of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme written in the “bottom up” style were illuminating.

Shea, William L. and Earl J. Hess. Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West (1992)
Shea and Hess’ close study of the battlefield and their use of resources all across the country resulted in a nearly perfect campaign study. If you haven’t read it yet, you’re in for a treat!

Hood, Stephen M. John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General. (2013)
As an historian, I regard this as a cautionary tale as Stephen Hood showed how many historians have not only drawn conclusions based on faulty interpretations, but some have been overly influenced by the works of other historians. This book has reminded me to step ever more carefully when interpreting primary sources and to not be so blindly trusting of secondary sources.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

One More Time: Diary of an Enlisted Man


In an earlier posting, I mentioned that one of the trans-Mississippi classics is Lawrence Van Alstyne’s, Diary of an Enlisted Man (1910). Although it does show some signs of postwar embellishment, his account has a number of strengths. Van Alstyne enlisted in August 1862 and was assigned to Company B of the 128th New York Infantry. In December 1862, the regiment was transferred by sea to Louisiana, and a few months later they participated in the Port Hudson campaign. In the fall of 1863, Van Alstyne received a commission as 2nd Lieutenant and became part of the 90th U. S. Colored Infantry. Although he served in the Port Hudson campaign, he was in a commissary role at the time and did not often come under fire. The 90th was in the Red River campaign but saw little active duty. The lack of combat duty, though, does not mean the diary is boring. His entries about camp life are well done such as the following snippet about a common soldier complaint:

“July 18, 1863….One of the boys borrowed a pair of shears and I guess they will wear them out. The best thing though was a fine-tooth comb, which has been in constant use to-day. That too was borrowed. I am ashamed to tell it, but when I got the comb I pulled out five lice from my hair the first grab….Body lice we don’t care for. We just boil our clothes and that’s the end of them. Their feeding time is when we are still for awhile, but at the first move they all let go and grab fast to our clothing” (p. 155).

My favorite chapter was his account of traveling back to Louisiana after a leave. The ship he traveled on was loaded with conscripts, and some of them proved to be pretty tough characters. Van Alstyne, along with other soldiers, helped bring the situation under control. At one point, he wrote, “I grabbed the tough by the collar with one hand and with the other jammed the muzzle of a cocked revolver against his ugly face, telling him to climb that ladder or die. He was a coward after all and went on deck as meek as you please, where I handcuffed him to the rigging and went back after more” (p. 278).

Descriptions of the country he traveled through and the civilians that he encountered are well done, and his recruiting duties in Louisiana for the 90th U. S. Colored were sometimes lively. Many of the African-Americans that served in the unit were bilingual, knowing both French and English. Diary of an Enlisted Man is a fine read, and it’s a shame that a modern edition of the book has never been published.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

One of the Oldest Civil War Monuments


Woodlawn Cemetery in Independence, Missouri, has one of the nation’s oldest Civil War monuments. Admittedly, I knew nothing about this monument until I read a short article about it in the August 2014 issue of Civil War News. The monument memorializes the men of the 2nd Colorado Cavalry that were killed on July 6, 1864, at Grinter’s Farm near Independence. That day, Captain Seymour D. Wagoner led twenty-three men of Company C on a patrol, and they rode right into a trap set by George Todd, a guerrilla leader. Captain Wagoner and seven of his men were killed and three of the guerrillas were wounded. A stagecoach that had been captured earlier in the day by Todd’s men was used to carry away the wounded guerrillas.

Remarkably, the monument was erected only ten days after the skirmish! It is believed to be the “oldest Civil War monument west of the Mississippi and third oldest in the country” (Civil War News, August 2014, p. 19). I’m going to visit this monument the next time I’m in Independence!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Franc B. Wilkie: An Embedded Journalist


Today is the anniversary of the battle of Wilson’s Creek, and an appropriate time to recognize Franc B. Wilkie. A native of New York, Wilkie entered the newspaper business when he was in his twenties and was associated with that profession for most of his life. In the 1850s, he ventured to Iowa, and became a correspondent for the Dubuque Herald when the war started. He traveled with the 1st Iowa Infantry during the campaign that culminated in the battle of Wilson’s Creek, and later in the year, the Dubuque Herald published in book form the thirty-two letters that he sent to the newspaper.

In 2001, the Camp Pope Bookshop published a new edition of this rare book along with Wilkie’s letters about the fall 1861 campaign. These latter include his accounts of the siege
of Lexington (Missouri), a skirmish at Blackwater River, and Second Boonville. Michael E. Banasik ably edited the book, and it is part of the publisher’s important Unwritten Chapters of the Civil War West of the Mississippi series. Later in the war, according to the book’s introduction, Wilkie became a correspondent for the New York Times and then worked for a Chicago newspaper.

Here is a part of Wilkie’s thirty-second letter that was written in Springfield on the day that the battle of Wilson’s Creek was fought:

“…Everybody who was in Springfield was up long before daylight and awaiting with feverish anxiety the event of the day…. About ten minutes past five the heavy boom of the artillery rolled through the town like the muttering of a thunder storm upon the horizon, and sent a thrill through every heart like a shock of electricity. I instantly mounted my horse and set out for the scene of the action, which was fully twelve miles distant, and as I neared it the explosions of the artillery became one continuous roar that only now and then was broken enough to distinguish the sound of individual guns….
As I approached the battlefield, squads of men could be seen galloping madly hither and thither, while out on the prairie were scores of saddled horses grazing peacefully, whose riders had left them in many cases forever. I met also two men getting away from the fatal timber, over which hung a thick smoke, as if hell itself were flaming within. Some of them limped painfully along, others were supported upon the arms of comrades, some were hatless, and with locks clotted and countenances ghastly with blood, while a few had helped themselves to horses, and all were making their way as fast as they could towards town. Going still further, one came to a spring, situated a few hundred yards from the line of fight, in a ravine, and here the wounded were conveyed, and here the doctors were busy in their humane but unwelcome duty.”

Source of quotation: Banasik, Michael E. Missouri in 1861: The Civil War Letters of Franc B. Wilkie, Newspaper Correspondent. Iowa City: Camp Pope Bookshop, 2001, pages 143-144.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

An Overlooked Gem: Diary of an Enlisted Man


Bell Irvin Wiley’s classics, The Life of Johnny Reb (1943) and The Life of Billy Yank (1952) were based on a solid foundation of unpublished manuscript sources, printed correspondence, printed diaries, unit histories, and printed memoirs. His “Bibliographical Notes” at the end of each book highlighted the best in each category, and that is how I learned of Lawrence Van Alstyne’s Diary of an Enlisted Man (1910). Wiley wrote that the book “gets off to a slow start but the author’s style, like that of some other diarists, improves with practice and the end product of his efforts is an absorbing book. The account is a memoir rather than a diary for the period after June 15, 1864” (page 440). Another plus is that Van Alstyne served in regiments that were stationed mostly in the trans-Mississippi. 

Before writing about some of the topics covered in his diary, I think it’s worthwhile to quote a part of Van Alstyne’s poignant preface. He enlisted in August 1862 in the 128th New York Infantry; only 23 years old, he promised his parents to keep notes of his experiences. For most of his service, he wrote his diary entries in “small notebooks” and sent them home after he filled them up. When he returned home, he bundled them all up “and put them away in an unused drawer of my desk, where they lay, unread and undisturbed for the next forty-five years.” As the years passed and more and more veterans passed away, “It was with a feeling of ever-increasing loneliness that I untied the bundle and began to read the long-forgotten diary. In a little while I was a boy again, one of that great company that helped to make history read as it does. Almost half a century had suddenly rolled back and I was with Company B—‘Bostwick’s Tigers’ we were called, not altogether on account of our fighting qualities, but became of the noise we sometimes made….
I was never so absorbedly interested. I even forgot my meals. For weeks I thought of little else and did little else than read and copy those dim old pages. I read from them to any who would listen, and wondered why it did not stir their blood as it did my own.
But the reason is plain. To the listener it was hearsay. To me it was real. So it may be with the diary now it is printed. In the nature of things it cannot be to others what it is to me. It is a part of my life. My blood would not tingle as it does at the reading of another man’s life. It is what historians had neither time nor space to write, the everyday life of an enlisted man in time of war” (pages v-vii).