It can be hard when researching primary sources from the American Civil War to separate ourselves from the big-picture understanding that we have of the momentous struggle. We know the final outcome and the logical pattern that led to the end. Thus when reading accounts from the war–with the end result, and timing of that result, in the back of our heads–we skew our perspective in with the soldiers’ actual experience.
Here and there I’ll read a quote that seems so fascinatingly out of place in the context of the war that the date must certainly be wrong. I’ve highlighted below a few quotes written just on the cusp of a major event that remind us that we need to place ourselves within the context of the writer when reading the primary source material that is the framework of Civil War research.
This little compilation of quotes was inspired by a recent park visitor who dropped off a copy of a letter written by his ancestor from the Petersburg trenches on July 29, 1864. Those familiar with the campaign will know that in one day’s time, the explosion resulting in the Crater and the tragic fighting that ensues will rock both armies. The soldier begins his letter, however, on the day before that extreme violence with the complaint that “it is getting dull here.” Just you wait.
I had the opportunity recently to have a short discussion with Tracy Power, author of the acclaimed Lee’s Miserables: Life in the Army of Northern Virginia from the Wilderness to Appomattox. He spoke about how he wanted to almost exclusively focus on primary sources from Lee’s army during its last year, so that the perspective would not be marred by postwar bias. To illustrate his point, he referred to the letters of a North Carolina captain, Benjamin W. Justice.
If Justice wrote about the Overland Campaign after the war, he would certainly would not declare May 11, 1864 to be the lowest point in morale among the Lee’s army. Yet his letter to his wife that day suggests that the Confederate cause could not sink any lower. “The excitement & confusion are great; the suffering of the wounded, indescribable; the mental anxiety & solicitude, almost insupportable… It must end before many days.” Hours after Justice completed the hopeless depictions in his letter, the Federal II Corps slammed into the Confederate “Mule Shoe” salient at Spotsylvania, beginning eighteen straight hours of ceaseless combat at the Bloody Angle. Just you wait.
And then finally we have the quote from my first post to this blog several years ago after stumbling upon a reminder that we should not race so quickly through the events in the last days of the war. Familiar with the slim chances for Confederate success, we can easily assume that the final steps to the surrender at Appomattox were an inevitability. But to the soldiers they were anything but guaranteed. And it would cost many their lives to see this cruel war through to its conclusion. On March 26, 1865, Captain Charles Morey wrote that “the rebels do not fight as well as they did one year ago.” Just you wait. One week later, and one week before the final surrender at Appomattox, Morey was killed during the last hour of the 292 day Petersburg Campaign.