When asked about ideas concerning primary sources that might be recommended to ECW readers, it did not take me more than a second to exclaim, “All for the Union!” This book—the Civil War Diary and Letters of Elisha Hunt Rhodes—was made famous in Ken Burns’ The Civil War mini-series for television. I purchased it soon after I became aware of it, and immediately was beguiled by the young Rhode Island man who served in the Army of the Potomac from the beginning of the war to its conclusion, went home, and became a productive citizen of the North, active in many veteran’s groups and being the same nice, smart, responsible person he seems to have been in his writings. I had not thought very much about becoming a historian at that point in my life, but I was certainly a fangirl of Rhodes.
As my own life changed and writing serious Civil War history became more important to me, my relationship with Rhodes changed. I more fully realized what he had given up to serve the Union, and I came to understand his daily life as a Yankee foot soldier. He wrote about training camp, the city of Washington, the 1864 election, the reaction of the men with whom he served to the Emancipation Proclamation, and in the winter of 1864, he rode his horse around the siege works in Petersburg and later wrote: “This is the birth of the Saviour, but we have paid very little attention to it in a religious way. . . .This is my fourth Christmas in the Army. I wonder if it will be my last.” All through the book, Rhodes commented, especially when an order didn’t make sense or times were especially trying, “Ah well! All for the Union!”
As much as I liked this diarist, I was pleased to meet his brother in arms, Sam Watkins. Sam served in Co. H of the First Tennessee Infantry, Army of Northern Virginia. Ken Burns also featured his diary, Co. “Aytch”: The First Tennessee Regiment or a Side Show to the Big Show, in his mini-series. It is every bit as delightful and informative as Rhodes’ work. Watkins’ memoirs were begun in 1881 in response to the urgings of family and friends, as opposed to Rhodes’ work, which was created from notes and letters written during the war.
Watkins writes a funny, self-deprecating volume. An example is his “sighting” of a Yankee soldier:
That night I stood picket on the Potomac with a detail of the Third Arkansas Regiment…I had to stand all night. I could hear the rumblings of the Federal artillery and wagons, and hear the low shuffling sound made by troops on the march.
About midnight the snow ceased to fall, and became quiet…While I was peering through the darkness, my eyes suddenly fell upon the outlines of a man. The more I looked the more I was convinced that it was a Yankee picket. I could see his hat and coat—yes, see his gun. I was sure that it was a Yankee picket. What was I to do?
At last a cold sweat broke out all over my body. Turkey bumps rose. I summoned all the nerve and bravery I could command, and said: “Halt! Who goes there?”
There being no response, I became resolute. I did not wish to fire and arouse the camp, but I marched right up to it and stuck my bayonet through and through it. It was a stump.
As many have written in this series, the reader believes at his or her peril everything in a memoir. Maybe Sam Watkins was not at the Battle of Franklin, maybe Elisha Hunt Rhodes was not always as cheery as he seems. Sam Watkins came from a wealthy family in Tennessee and his father owned over 100 slaves, but nowhere is slavery mentioned in his memoirs. Still, please notice that almost every ECW writer who has contributed to this series mentions some version of a diary or collection of letters from a soldier. Before Bell I. Wiley published his seminal The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy, in 1943, little work had been done by the history community with the primary sources found in attics and closets. Without Wiley’s focus on the common soldier, we would all be the poorer for a lack of attention to the people who lived through the war.
Today there are collections of this type of primary source being published every month. Emil and Ruth Rosenblatt’s Hard Marching Every Day: The Civil War Letters of Private Wilber Fisk has already been mentioned here. It is one of my favorites. A Voice of Thunder: A Black Soldier’s Civil War—the letters of George E. Stevens, an embedded reporter for the Anglo-African who traveled with the famous 54thMassachusetts, is another important contribution, especially considering the level of literacy among many black volunteers. Stevens speaks for many. Just recently, Savas Batie has released The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Grisham, 1860-1865. This valuable book may be the Civil War parallel to The Diary of Anne Frankin its importance to understanding the people affected by the difficult times if the 1860s.
And why are such books important primary sources? Because no matter how many sandboxes full of bars of soldiers get moved in alternative ways, no matter how many porch discussions about the exact movements of a specific unit during a specific battle, and no matter how close a close reading one gives of a specific general’s orders, it all really—for me—comes down to the common people. Who were the men (and women?) who are represented by those bars and what did they think? Love? See? What effect did that specific movement of that specific unit have upon the folks who owned the land upon which it occurred? Memoirs and letters help the reader put a face, a personality, to the numbers we constantly parse. We fall in thrall to Watkins’ sly humor and universal sarcasm of the little fellow against those in charge. We sympathize with Rhodes’ hopes for the future of a wife and family, and we share with him the excitement and love he develops for Lucy, his war horse, because we know she may be the last thing he loves.
History is a hard mistress. There must be a reason we work so long and diligently to tell her stories and understand her participants. Well, there is such a reason: when one comes to know these people, one wants others to know them as well. They are much like we are, even though they wore uniforms, suits, hoops, or rags. We do not want to be forgotten, so let us not forget them. With primary sources such as letters and diaries, we get a little closer to that goal.