Book Review: Through Blood and Fire: The Civil War Letters of Major Charles J. Mills, 1862-1865, Revised and Expanded Edition

Through Blood and Fire: The Civil War Letters of Major Charles J. Mills, 1862-1865, Revised and Expanded Edition. Edited by J. Gregory Acken. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2023. 312 pp, hardcover, $55.

Reviewed by Tim Talbott

Few primary sources better inform us about the lives of Civil War soldiers than do their letters. Journals and diaries, while also revealing (depending on their composition) are often more fragmented due to the nature of their creation and intention—stream of conscious as memory aid. Letter writing on the other hand, aimed to a specific audience, usually requires and incorporates a level of narrative and description not found in dairies and journals.

Fortunately, the Civil War community has had access to published soldiers’ letters from even before the war was over, as many period newspapers printed letters during the conflict to inform their readers about what their community’s fighters were experiencing. Interest in soldiers’ letters continues on to the present with editors and publishers still making previously unavailable collections accessible in printed form. Additionally, digital repositories, hosted by colleges and universities, as well as enthusiasts like William Griffing and his “Spared and Shared” databases, make entering the worlds of those saw the war first-hand about as reachable as is possible.

Originally published and edited in a limited edition of only 300 copies in 1982 by the late historian Gregory A. Coco, Through Blood and Fire: The Civil War Letters of Major Charles J. Mills, 1862-1865, quickly became a highly desired but largely unattainable collection of letters. However, with the recent publication of Through Blood and Fire in a “revised and expanded edition,” and expertly edited by J. Gregory Acken, bibliophiles now have an opportunity to finally read and own what is widely considered as one of the finest collections of published letters in existence.

Acken importantly provides readers with not only the original forward to the 1982 edition by Dr. Richard J. Sommers, but he also includes Coco’s preface. Acken’s own preface and acknowledgements explains that the letters included in the 2023 volume are copies of transcriptions from Coco’s 1982 book, but that there are “thee complete letters and excerpts from five others that Mills wrote during the war,” now held in Harvard’s Houghton Library that are included, too. (xv) Acken also provides a new introduction that benefits from the incorporation of important scholarship produced since the 1982 edition.

According to Acken, Coco lightly edited the 1982 edition. In comparison, the footnotes (helpfully in this case at the bottom of the pages rather than at the back of the book) that Acken provides are robust, and again, incorporate recent scholarship, and “inform and expand upon key themes that emerge in Mills’s writing.” (xvi)

Lt. Charles J. Mills entered United States service as an officer in the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry largely due to the opportunities created through the high casualty rates they suffered at the Battle of Cedar Mountain. However, Mill’s Harvard education and well-connected Boston family could not protect him from receiving severe wounds in his legs at Antietam, only a month after joining the regiment. Mills’s extended recovery necessitated his discharge, but he soon received a desk position with an uncle in the Navy Department in Washington D.C. By August 1863, Mills became the adjutant of the 56th Massachusetts Infantry, and then moved to the staff of Brig. Gen. Thomas G. Stevenson. Mills was only briefly with Stevenson due to the general’s death at Spotsylvania.

A host of factors led Mills to serve on the staffs of six other generals by 1865. First, Maj. Gen. Thomas Crittenden, who replaced Stevenson, resigned. Then Brig. Gen. James Ledlie’s incompetence led to Mill’s next opportunity with Brig. Gen. Julius White, and then Maj. Gen. John G. Parke. Transferred to the Second Corps, Mills staffed for Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, and then Hancock’s replacement, Maj. Gen. Andrew Humphries.

All of these different staff roles created opportunities for Mills to observe and freely comment about not only the commanders, but other staff members he worked with, and army politics. He also gives his thoughts on the “tone” of the two different corps that he worked for. While Mills made some warm friends in the Ninth Corps, he did not appear all that impressed by the corps and its history. After moving to the Second Corps, he mentioned that “It certainly is agreeable to belong to [a corps] which everyone praises, instead of one that many people blackguard.” (224)

The majority of Mills’s letters are to his mother. As he explains to his father: “The fact is that I expend most of my epistolary ardor on Mother and it is rather difficult to keep up an active correspondence with two members of the same family, as one is afraid of repetition, I hope you understand this, and are not disgusted at my writing almost exclusively to her.” (182) While occasionally reassuring his mother of the relative safety of his staff position, Mills does not seem to sanitize his comments or gloss over things to her.

Tragically, less than ten days before the surrender at Appomattox, a Confederate solid shot ended Mills’s life near the Boydton Plank Road southwest of Petersburg.

Drawing on a wealth of experience from editing the memoirs and letters of other Army of the Potomac soldiers, Acken’s “revised and expanded edition” of Through Blood and Fire makes a serious and needed contribution to the body of scholarship built around soldiers’ letter collections. In addition, the 2023 version serves as a worthy tribute to Gregory A. Coco and his 1982 edition.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!