A primary source is defined as one produced by an eyewitness to an event offering their recollections. Some primary sources provide just basic facts with limited additional details. Other sources, like battle reports, provide more details but often offer little in terms of context, analysis, or human feeling. Some are also unreliable for myriad factors, but many are superb.
The best, and usually most useful, primary sources get at the human element. They tell the story in such a way as to peel back the curtain and delve into what a person was thinking and feeling at the moment. Fortunately, there are plenty of sources that do this; many of which are well-known. I offer my favorite published ones below.
First is the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. This has been called some of the greatest military writing since Caesar’s Commentaries, and I agree. Written in a vivid and clear style, Grant offers his story with enough detail to understand both what was happening and his perspectives. Discussion of events like his first battle at Belmont, the taking of Vicksburg, and Appomattox, especially where he lets the reader into his thoughts, really stand out.
Another great source is an interview with General Simon Bolivar Buckner in 1909 in Confederate Veteran (Volume 17, pages 61-64 and 83-85). General Buckner at the time was the last surviving Confederate lieutenant general, and gave a far-ranging interview on many subjects. He discussed his service in Mexico and the antebellum U.S. Army, his family, his son S.B. Buckner Jr., and the Civil War. Buckner offered candid opinions about various Union and Confederate commanders, and then for the first time revealed the story of his dealings with Colonel John Wilder at the Munfordville surrender on September 17, 1862. Reading his account, it is clear the lasting impression that event had on him 47 years later.
For enlisted soldiers, Wilbur Fisk’s Hard Marching Every Day and Marcus Toney’s Privations of a Private offer superb details about all aspects of the life of a man in the ranks. Toney fought in East and West for the Confederacy, while Fisk’s service in the Union’s Vermont Brigade took him all over Virginia. Readers who want to get a sense of what private soldiers did and thought would be advised to start with either of these.
For more modern sources (included because Chris M didn’t limit our discussion to the Civil War), I recommend the following:
– I Saw the Fall of the Philippines (also published as Last Man Off Bataan) by Carlos Romulo is a searing and detailed portrayal of his experiences in Manila, Bataan, and Corregidor in late 1941 and early 1942. After finishing this book, I had to sit and stare for some time and fully process what I had just read. Romulo’s account of his escape from Bataan by plane, just hours before its fall, makes for especially riveting reading.
– Four writers from the jungles of Burma: Prisoners of Hope by Mike Calvert, The Road Past Mandalay by John Masters, The Marauders by Charlton Ogburn, and both Beyond the Chindwin and The Wild Green Earth by Bernard Fergusson. These all are written in such a way as to make the reader almost feel the heat and smell the sweat. Masters’ description of the Blackpool Block fight in May 1944, where he was in command, is unbelievably powerful.
– If You Survive by George Wilson. This is a superb memoir by a platoon and company commander in the 4th Infantry Division from July 1944 (when he came forward as a replacement) until war’s end. The title is based on a quote from Wilson’s battalion commander: “If you survive your first day, I’ll promote you to First Lieutenant.”
– Lastly, two senior leader memoirs: Defeat Into Victory by Sir William Slim and It Doesn’t Take a Hero by Norman Schwarzkopf. Both vividly recount their actions but also get behind the mask of command. I blogged about Slim’s book before.