Book Review:Contemners and Serpents: The James Wilson Family Civil War Correspondence

Do readers really need another book of letters written by a family that lived during the Civil War? A resounding “Yes!” is the reaction to Contemners and Serpents: The James Wilson Family Civil War Correspondence. Two compelling men edit the book: T. A. Fuller (now deceased) was a former colonel in the Air Force who served on General Omar Bradley’s 12th Army Group staff and as an assistant air attaché in the U.S. Embassy in London from 1949-1952, and Associate Professor Thomas Knight, a current professor of History at the University of Texas. This combination of authors provides a historical continuum for the book itself. Readers get an unvarnished view of life in the 1860s from the Wilson family’s letters, an introduction to the beginning of the end of Lost Cause thought, and an up-to-date analysis of the Lost Cause-ism/racism inherent in those letters. This book is a rare and wonderful read.

The James Wilson family was an anomaly in the nineteenth century. Everyone was well-educated, well-spoken, etc., but the family owned no land and claimed no wealth. Instead, James Wilson and his wife, Eliza, dedicated their lives to spreading the Presbyterian faith to the world by working as missionaries in India from 1848-1858. Their five children were born in India but returned to relatives in the U.S. to be educated. Long periods were spent with the family being separated by distance and circumstance. When everyone finally came “home,” they lived in eastern Tennessee, in an America far different from the one they left ten years earlier.

Ultimately, all four sons ended up fighting for the Confederacy. Daughter Bessie married a southerner, expressing herself concerning the marriage of one of her friends to a northerner, “Perhaps I may be mistaken but I do think had I lived there threescore years and ten I never never would have married a Yankee!” (263) The lone holdout concerning Blue and Gray was the father, James, who was a Union man in most ways until the very end of the war. It is not certain whether he honestly supported the Confederacy or was more concerned with keeping his family together.

Several brothers saw action during the war, especially James, who was in almost every battle fought by the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. He enlisted in the First Georgia Volunteers at its formation, listed as March 18, 1861. He was an accurate, enthusiastic reporter of battle and camp life and worked to bring his brothers into full support of the Confederacy. Brother Joe joined the 14th Tennessee after Fredericksburg. He was captured during the Petersburg Campaign but returned at the war’s end. Both men claimed the mantle of “Unreconstructed Rebel” to the end of their days.

At the end of the book, there is an epilogue that explains much that might not be clear in the letters. Like the Methodists and Baptists, the Presbyterian church broke into northern and southern factions. Although raised in the north, the preaching of the Wilsons supported the South. Editor Knight discusses this in the epilogue, admitting that it is confusing to see so many devout Christians support the cause of slavery. Although slavery is mentioned by name less than a dozen times in this vast collection of letters, Knight points out that it is usually expressed in a paternal, condescending manner. The Millers seemed content to leave the South as it was and were willing to fight a war over the idea that everything was fine in Dixie, and that she should be left alone to go her own way. Knight does an excellent job of discussing this issue.

The only problem with this book is that there are four Wilson brothers. It takes reading about a third of Contemners and Serpents to get each man “sorted out” as to exactly which letter belongs to whom. But, of course, this happens with any diverse set of letters—or perhaps it is just an issue afflicting this reviewer. Readers who collect books of Civil War correspondence will be well-advised to add this to the bookshelf.

Contemners and Serpents: The James Wilson Family Civil War Correspondence

Edited by Theodore Albert Fuller and Thomas Daniel Knight

Mercer University Press, 2022

$45.00 hardback

Reviewed by Meg Groeling

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