Book Review: The Bone Ring: Civil War Journals of Colonel William James Leonard

The Bone Ring: Civil War Journals of Colonel William James Leonard. Edited by Gari Carter. Worcester, MA: Donella Press, 2023. Softcover, 100 pp. $14.95.

Reviewed by Tim Talbott

Maryland’s role in the Civil War has received increased scholarly attention over the last dozen or so years. Works on a variety of Old Line State Civil War topics have only deepened a pool of significant past studies on the state’s major military actions, its divided civilian population, the institution of slavery, and the process of emancipation. To help craft these studies, historians have drawn upon an assortment of published and unpublished primary sources to provide examples and serve and the evidence for the conclusions they offer.

Adding to the relatively small body of published primary sources that cover the experiences of Maryland’s Federal soldiers is The Bone Ring: Civil War Journals of Colonel William James Leonard, edited by Leonard’s great-granddaughter Gari Carter. This slim volume only covers a little more than a month’s timeframe, but those five weeks, as the state’s immediate future hung in the balance, also proved to be some of the most eventful of Leonard’s lifetime.

William James Leonard was 45-years-old when he became the colonel of the Purnell Legion Infantry. Born and raised on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Leonard farmed, served in the state legislature, and ran a business before the Civil War. Like many of his neighbors, Leonard had enslaved men, women, and children, but apparently manumitted them in the years preceding the war. However, unlike many of his neighbors, Leonard was a committed unionist. While political issues such as Federal troop movements through Maryland, and whether the state would secede or remain loyal to the United States led to violence and uncertainty, Leonard maintained steadfast in his belief in a perpetual and indivisible Union.

The Purnell Legion, named for its founder, William H. Purnell, once the Maryland state comptroller, and then the postmaster of Baltimore, originally consisted of nine companies of infantry, two companies of cavalry, and two batteries of artillery. When Col. Purnell resigned in February 1862, the three branches of service became independent and Leonard became colonel of the infantry.

Serving first along Virginia’s Eastern Shore before receiving a transfer to the Shenandoah Valley for service at Harpers Ferry, and then becoming part of Maj. Gen. John Pope’s Army of Virginia, Leonard and Purnell’s Legion was at Catlett’s Station in Fauquier County along the Orange and Alexandria Railroad when disaster struck. Leonard began recording events in his journal on August 20, 1862.

While suffering from a bilious fever, and after taking quarters at a local citizen’s house who had requested a guard to ensure the safety of his property, Leonard was captured on August 22. Gobbled up by Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart and his cavalry, Leonard described his predicament: “I had nothing to do but submit, being entirely unarmed and . . . surrounded by soldiers.” (19) At first promised a parole, but then informed that he would not, Leonard and others taken prisoner moved to Warrenton where they stayed a couple of days, then moved on the Culpeper.

Leonard’s journal, although rather brief, does provide some excellent documentation on the movement and treatment of the Catlett’s Station prisoners. Leonard describes different aspects of the trip from Catlett’s to Richmond, including providing commentary on weather conditions, descriptions of landscapes (including the Cedar Mountain battlefield), food the prisoners were offered, and some friends and enemies he encountered along the way.

Arriving at Libby Prison in Richmond on August 28, Leonard and his comrades made do as best they could. Leonard passed a difficult first night in captivity on “two rough benches which kept me off the filthy floor.” (25) Apparently unaccustomed to duties like laundry and cooking, which were probably provided by African American camp servants before his capture, now Leonard had to perform those tasks himself. His recorded accounts have excellent descriptions of his prison experience.

Leonard’s incarceration proved rather short compared others later in the war when the prisoner exchange system broke down. Leaving Libby on September 24, less than a month after arriving, he was obviously relieved, “Our doors are open, thank God,” he wrote. (40) A memento Leonard kept of his prison time was a finger ring carved from a beef bone by his imprisoned friends. Traveling by boat down the James River to Fort Monroe, then up the Chesapeake Bay to Annapolis, Leonard’s journal ends on September 27, 1862.

Editor Gari Carter provides a beneficial epilogue that details Leonard’s life following his imprisonment and then the resignation of his command of the Purnell Legion in November 1862. In addition to the fine footnoting Carter provides, there are extras provided in the book including some of Leonard’s poetry and the family’s genealogy.

The Bone Ring makes fine addition to the few published primary accounts of Federal Marylanders. Its details of military capture, transportation, and incarceration are sure to of value to researchers seeking examples of these soldier experiences.

2 Responses to Book Review: The Bone Ring: Civil War Journals of Colonel William James Leonard

  1. Memory of Maryland’s political allegiance was largely formed by the Lost Cause mythology, buttressed by some more modern monographs. It depicts Maryland as held in the Union against its will, the rights of its citizens trampled and violated. To counter that argument, some recent authors have written that Maryland was overwhelmingly Unionist, probably going too far in their advocacy. In my opinion, a balanced account of the state’s loyalty has yet to be written. Accounts by Union soldiers from Maryland, like this one, are helpful in balancing the scales of primary source material and injecting another voice into the conversation.

  2. I would respectfully submit that a balanced account can be found among the essays in The Civil War in Maryland Reconsidered, edited by Charles Mitchell and Jean Baker (LSU 2021)

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