Pick #7 in the Top Ten: Your Choice of a Diary, Journal, Or Collection of Letters, by a real enlisted soldier, Yank or Reb

Elisha Hunt Rhodes
Elisha Hunt Rhodes

Part of a Series: Books Every Civil War Buff Ought to Own

Every bookshelf should contain some sort of diary or collection of letters, memoirs, etc. from one person who served in the Civil War. I would recommend a volume written by a common soldier rather than a commanding officer, so this is not a plug for Grant’s Memoirs. In fact, this particular recommendation is more a “your choice” than one specific book title.

The most famous (thank you Ken Burns!) of these types of memoirs is All For the Union: The Civil War Diary and Letters of Elisha Hunt Rhodes. Rhodes was a nineteen-year old private in the Second Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry. He joined his local unit of volunteers, with permission from his widowed mother, in July 1861. When he left the Army of the Potomac, a little over four years later, he was a colonel in command of his regiment, and an experienced twenty-three year old combat veteran. He kept diaries and wrote letters in an educated manner during the entire time of his enlistment, quickly developing a readable style that makes this particular volume very enjoyable.

by Van R. Willard
by Van R. Willard

Another memoir/diary I have enjoyed reading is With the Third Wisconsin Badgers: The Living Experience of the Civil War Through the Journals of Van R. Willard. This young man was also one of the “boys of ’61,” having signed up in his home town of Neenah, Wisconsin, with the Neenah Guards just after President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers. Willard served continuously until July 1, 1864, when he was mustered out. Unlike the amazingly healthy Rhodes, Willard spent time in a variety of Union hospitals for both illness and an injury. He even served as a nurse as he reached the end of his convalescence for illness. Willard often expressed his emotions in poetry, which is less unusual than one might think for the time, and examples of this poetry is included in the volume.

When I was doing research on the role of Custer during the Battle of Gettysburg, I used several memoirs of men with whom Custer had served, and who were participants in the particular event I was researching. I will mention three that were informative, readable, and helped me make my case that, basically, Custer won Gettysburg (more on that later, like July!). These are not book-length volumes, which means that finding specific information is easier: “Come On, You Wolverines!”: Custer at Gettysburg, At Custer’s Side: The Civil War Writings of James Harvey Kidd, and Under Custer’s Command: The Civil War Journal of James Henry Avery.

“Come On You Wolverines!”
Don Troiani

Why should you have one, or more, of these memoirs? Because they give us the truest glimpse into the hearts and minds of the young men who fought this war. Here is the pretty-much unvarnished truth about how Union (and Confederate) men felt about slavery, about the South as an idea and the “enemy” as individual soldiers, and how camp life affected them, one and all. The humor and heartbreak is plainly evident. The fear of battle, oddly enough, is explained not as a fear of injury or death, but as a fear of cowardice, or the perception of such. Putting a human face–indeed, a young, cheerful, boyish face–on any soldier in any war is a huge step toward understanding that war.

More and more of these types of books are being published. You might even be involved in editing one, or know of some similar project. As more letters and journals are being uncovered in attics, trunks and letter caches, the finders are realizing the worth of the discovery. Colleges and universities have set aside entire departments to handle old manuscripts, and grad students are giving these documents the care and concern they have always deserved. The big guns in Civil War history are now open to reading and interpreting these unique primary sources, and many more of these publications now have names like Eric Wittenberg, Michael Phipps, and William C. Davis on their covers.

If you have a specific interest in the Civil War–a geographic locale, a relative’s involvement, a certain year or one specific battle–there is probably a memoir out there for you. I am a big fan of amazon.com and its used books, but there are many places to look online for titles. Wikipedia, which gets way too much bad publicity, is another place to start. Wiki up your subject, then go to the end of the article and check the individual sources for titles concerning your area of interest. You will find nuggets of gold!

Co. AytchI will offer only one disclaimer–I am a Unionist, so most of my work and research concerns the Northern armies and politicians. If you lean a bit more South, I plead with you to send your recommendations in this category to me. I simply do not know these sources well enough to comment on them. That being said, I just ordered Co. Aytch, by Confederate Sam Watkins, on amazon, for less than $5.00. Sam Watkins was Ken Burns’s Confederate mirror to Elijah Hunt Rhodes, and I am an idiot if I don’t read this book.

Confederate Sam Watkins
Confederate Sam Watkins

Don’t be an idiot (joke)–own, and read, a memoir! (not a joke!).

13 Responses to Pick #7 in the Top Ten: Your Choice of a Diary, Journal, Or Collection of Letters, by a real enlisted soldier, Yank or Reb

  1. I haven’t read a soldier’s diary yet, but after this post I plan to. I did just finish Mary Chesnut’s diary, which I thoroughly enjoyed and recommend. I am looking forward to your article on Custer! I have long been interested in his career, and have read everything, including obscure stuff, that I can get my hands on. His contribution to the outcome at Gettysburg deserves more recognition and respect. As a lifelong Michiganian until last year, “Come on you Wolverines!” still stirs me.

    As an aside, do you have any opinion on the Detroit Institute of Art’s decision to auction the Culbertson guidon a few years ago, rather than donating it to a museum? That poor, bloodstained relic, found under the dead soldier’s body who died trying to protect it, deserved a better fate. To my knowledge the buyer remains unknown, and I have heard nothing of it’s fate.

  2. I would suppose it was simply an economic decision–either the DIA needed money (it was/is the recession) or the original person who loaned it to the museum wanted money. Much that is on display is loaned rather than belonging to the museum outright. For instance, there is a terrific little chair in Alexandria at Fort Ward. It was the childhood chair of Mr. James Jackson, the man who shot Elmer Ellsworth. In trying to humanize Jackson, who is pretty much the bad guy in the Ellsworth story, I asked to be allowed to photograph the little chair without the glass case. Turns out that the local DAR owns the chair, and it stayed right where it was–behind the glass!

    This is just a guess, as far as the guidon–and thanks for commenting! Let me know what you decide on as a memoir.

  3. Ms. Thompson, enjoyed your post about memoirs. Having read mostly Confederate memoirs, two of my favorites are Union. The Road to Richmond by Abner Small has always been one of my favorites. Small was with the 16th Maine and was an excellent writer. His Gettysburg chapter is excellent. Another Union favorite of mine is Inside the Army of the Potomac by Captain Francis Donaldson. Donaldson spent time with both the 71st PA and the 118th PA. I never laughed so hard reading about some of his exploits with some of his fellow officers. His Gettysburg chapter is also top notch. Thanks again.

  4. Three recommendations in the Letters line; One Federal and two Confederate.
    1. Letters of a Civil War Surgeon, ed. Paul Fatout, Purdue University Studies (1961). A bargain at $2.25 plus shipping! Major William Watson served with the 105th PA Vols from Fredericksburg to Appomattox. You should still be able to obtain it from Purdue.
    2. The Cry is War, War, War, Michael Taylor, Morningside (1994). Civil War letters of George Huntley (22nd NC) and Burwell Cotton (34th NC). Both in Scales Brigade. Huntley killed July 2, 1863 at you know where, and Cotton killed at Jerusalem Plank Road, VA, June 22, 1864.
    3. Voices From Cemetery Hill, Allen Paul Speer, The Overmountain Press (1997). Letters of Col. William Henry Asbury Speer, 28th NC, mortally wounded at Reams Station August 25, 1864.

    The Watson letters are by a well educated Pennsylvanian with a good eye for detail. He was a noncombatant in a regiment which saw a great deal of action. Although a staunch Unionist, his views on race are not politically correct for today. Huntley and Cotton were line officers in Hill’s Light Division and their insights into combat, death and politics are first-rate. Col. Speer is a tragic figure. He was raised a Quaker and his parents opposed slavery and the secession movement. He voices his own doubts but was the colonel of a fighting regiment. This book has good insights to the “Inner Civil War” in Piedmont, NC.

  5. Huzzah! This is exactly the response I was hoping for–your preferences & suggestions! I will be purchasing every book recommended in any of these Replies, and I personally thank you.

  6. I’ve read two Civil War memoirs. The first was Sam Watkins’ book, and it was outstanding. When I was reading it, in my mind, I read in the voice of Watkins from the Ken Burns series.

    The second was a collection of letters from John Brendel, who served in the 11th PA, to his wife. I got it in the Antietam battlefield store, and it turns out it was edited & compiled by the guide who gave my mother & I a tour of the battlefield. That book was also excellent.

  7. My personal preference is reading journals and letters, rather than memoirs. I love the immediacy of reading something that was written on the same day, or within a few days/weeks of the events described, rather than years or decades later. I prefer the author being under the influence of the fog of war, rather than the fog of a fading memory. While I enjoy reading first-hand accounts from both the Union and Confederate side, the following are some of my favorites from a diverse set of Confederate participants – two brothers who enlisted in 1861, only one of whom survived the war; the preeminent Southern mapmaker in the war; an Irish-born Catholic priest who left his parish in Louisiana to serve in the Army of Northern Virginia; and two sisters trying to run and maintain their farm in Union-occupied Alexandria, Virginia:

    1) Far, Far From Home, The Wartime Letters of Dick and Tally Simpson, 3rd South Carolina Volunteers, ed. Guy Everson and Edward Simpson, Jr., Oxford University Press, 1994.
    2) Make Me A Map of the Valley, The Civil War Journal of Stonewall Jackson’s Topographer, Jedediah Hotchkiss, ed. Archie McDonald, Southern Methodist University Press, 1973.
    3) Confederate Chaplin, A War Journal of Rev. James B. Sheeran, 14th Louisiana, C.S.A., ed. Rev. Joseph T. Durkin, S.J., Bruce Publishing Company, 1960.
    4) The Civil War Diary of Anne S. Frobel of Wilton Hill in Virginia, EPM Publication, McLean, Virginia, 1992.

  8. I just read a very interesting one available free on Kindle by Judge Leander Stillwell–very enjoyable first hand account. I used primary literature like diaries, letters, battle account to dramatize my ancestor’s Civil War experience–google Hiram’s Honor if interested.

    1. Max! So good to hear from you. Happy New Year–it’s 1863 already–! Thanks for the mention of another memoir, and the mention that there are wonderful things for FREE at Kindle. Much is in the public domain, so thank the minds and hands that cared in the first place about diaries and letters, saved them, and got them organized.

  9. I’ve got another recommendation of a great Confederate memoir: “Lee and Jackson’s Bloody Twelfth: The Letters of Irby Goodwin Scott, First Lieutenant, Company G, Twelfth Georgia Volunteer Infantry” edited by Johnnie Pearson, University of Tennessee Press

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