In his self-published book An Epic on “Old Abe,” The War Eagle (The War Eagle Book Association, 1894), S. C. Miles, a veteran of the 8th Wisconsin, extolled the virtue of first-person accounts of the war. Such accounts required “no coloring of imagination or romance to satisfy the taste of the reader for the romantic or heroic phases of life. Romance could not exceed the reality. . . .”
Memoirs, he conceded, offered a limited view. But, he explained, “as spring, rivulet, brooks and creeks combine to form great rivers, so the incidents of personal endurance, daring and heroism of the private soldier are indispensable to the accomplishment of the great events.” Veterans, therefore, had a responsibility to write their accounts. “[I]f not recorded by the actor or participator while living, [it] will leave a vacant page in our great nation’s history to be filled by the less desirable article of fiction,” he said.
A frequent contributor to The National Tribune, Miles had a somewhat self-justifying perception about memoir—but that doesn’t make him wrong, either. Soldier memoirs, in particular, shed crucial anecdotal light on major actions, illuminating “top-down” history from the bottom up. In the October 2021 issue of Civil War News, editor Jack Melton asked several historians to share their favorite soldier memoirs. Here are mine:
My favorite Civil War memoir is John Haley’s The Rebel Yell & The Yankee Hurrah: A Civil War Journal of a Maine Volunteer, edited by Ruth L. Silliker (Down East Books, 1985). Haley was a private in the 17th Maine Infantry, a regiment that joined the Army of the Potomac right after Antietam and served through Appomattox.
Haley kept a journal during his time in the army, which he used years later as the basis for his memoir, Haley’s Chronicles 1862-1865. The hand-written, 440-thousand-word epic sat in the Historical Room of the Dyer Library in Saco, Maine, where editor Silliker found it. Her work trimming the book was invaluable.
Haley writes with a fantastic sense of snark but also empathy. He’s incredibly insightful, and he turns a phrase better than any soldier I’ve come across. His book is a delight to read. (I’ve quoted from it frequently in past blog posts.)
My second-favorite memoir written by a soldier is Thomas Francis Galwey’s The Valiant Hours: An Irishman in the Civil War (Stackpole Books, 1961). Galway, an Irish immigrant, served in the 8th Ohio. The regiment served beginning 1861, seeing service in the western Virginia campaign and then joining the Army of the Potomac after Second Manassas. Galwey remained with the regiment until it mustered out in July 1864 during the Siege of Petersburg. (Read Dan Welch’s 2017 appreciation of Galwey here.)
Galwey’s wartime diary, unpublished in his lifetime, is filled with gem after gem of anecdotes about soldier life. His battle accounts are interesting, even if limited by what he himself could see, but that soldier’s-eye view brings with it its own kind of wisdom. Editor W. S. Nye brought Galwey’s work to print a hundred years after it was first written.
For a few other honorable mentions:
Rice Bull, Soldiering: The Civil War Diary of Rice C. Bull, 123rd New York Volunteer Infantry, Karl Jack Bauer, editor (Presidio Press, 1977): The 123rd serves in both the eastern and western theaters, giving Bull a front-row seat to a number of important actions. His account of the battle of Chancellorsville got me hooked on his work, but students of Sherman’s March to the Sea will find Bull’s work equally compelling.
Wilbur Fisk, Hard Marching Every Day: The Civil War Letters of Private Wilbur Fisk, 1861-1865, Emil Rosenblatt, Ruth Rosenblatt, editors (University Press of Kansas, 1992): A school teacher before the war, Fisk served in the 2nd Vermont and wrote letters as a soldier-in-the-field correspondent for The Green Mountain Freeman.
Daniel M. Holt, A Surgeon’s Civil War: The Letters and Diary of Daniel M. Holt, M.D. (Kent State University Press, 1991): A doctor with the 121st New York—Emory Upton’s original regiment, which found itself in hot spot after hot spot—Holt captures the naked horror of war as only a doctor could see it. Holt had a sublime eye and besieged sense of empathy that both inform his work.
Theodore Lyman, Meade’s Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman, David Lowe, editor (Kent State University Press, 2007): Lyman was a civilian volunteer aide to Meade, and his deep loyalty to Meade comes through. Lyman turns a good descriptive phrase.
And as for Miles’s work, you can find fragments from his epic on “Old Abe” the War Eagle in the Wisconsin Historical Society’s online collection here.
His was the last in a string of veteran-authored accounts of Joseph Mower’s “Live Eagle Brigade” and so was perhaps the most over-the-top. See also, as examples, Frank Abial Flower, Old Abe, the Eighth Wisconsin War Eagle. A Full Account of His Capture and Enlistment, Exploits in War and Honorable as well as Useful Career in Peace (Madison, WI: Curran and Bowen, 1885) and John Melvin Williams, The “Eagle Regiment,”: 8th Wis. Inf’ty. Vols. (Belleville, WI: Recorder Print, 1890).