Reviewed by Jonathan A. Noyalas
Civil War history, like all history, as my graduate professor Dr. James I. “Bud” Robertson, Jr. always reminded me during my time at Virginia Tech, is at its core about people. Therefore, in order to truly understand the multifarious ways our nation’s defining moment impacted human beings Robertson believed, and rightfully so, that serious students of the conflict needed to not only read the writings of top military and political officials, but immerse themselves in the letters, diaries, and journals of those who fought in the ranks and civilians at home. While innumerable volumes of letters from soldiers and civilians have been published throughout the decades since the conflict’s end, this collection of letters between Michiganders Samuel Woodworth and his wife Elllen, smartly edited by Jack Dempsey, further enriches our understanding of the ways the Civil War impacted and changed people.
This compilation of more than one hundred letters, spanning from September 24, 1863, two days after Samuel enlisted in the First Michigan Engineers and Mechanics, to May 5, 1865, contains items typically found in letters exchanged between husband and wife during the conflict. Concerns about health, loved ones at home, financial difficulties, diet, and weather dominate much of the correspondence between the two. While historians will always find those topics valuable, these letters offers much more than the customary wartime exchanges between husband and wife.
One of the themes that courses throughout this volume is Ellen’s struggle to maintain her patriotism once her husband volunteered. When Samuel enlisted in the autumn of 1863 she professed that her ardent patriotism was buoyed by Samuel’s commitment to the Union. Ellen even surmised that her thirty-one year old husband’s decision to join the First Michigan Engineers and Mechanics as an artificer might compel friends and acquaintances to enlist. However, Ellen found her patriotism challenged the more her husband wrote about his wartime experiences, including ill health. Loneliness and concerns about taking care of their two children only exacerbated Ellen’s thoughts about the war’s righteousness. Nonetheless, Ellen, buoyed by her devout Christian beliefs, maintained faith that God would protect her husband and the United States.
Furthermore, this outstanding volume demonstrates how interactions with enslaved people could alter one’s perspective about abolitionism. From the war’s outset Samuel, unlike his wife, had not been a proponent of emancipation. Samuel’s viewpoint changed the more he interacted with Black people and witnessed slavery’s horrors firsthand. Samuel admitted to Ellen on October 15, 1864, that those encounters transformed him into an abolitionist.
While those interested in the Civil War’s social aspects will find this collection quite useful, so too will military historians. Samuel’s letters, many of which are penned from locations in Alabama and Tennessee, provide insight into the types of construction tasks performed by his unit, including building blockhouses. Samuel’s discussion of building these structures not only serves as useful reminder of the importance of such work to Union victory, but underscores the reality that while the greatest dangers soldiers confronted were on the battlefield, engaging in this sort of labor came with its share of danger too. For example, on August 21, 1864, Samuel related the grisly details of the death of a sergeant in his unit who was killed when a piece of timber fell on him during a construction project in Alabama. Additionally, Samuel offers insight into activities of bushwhackers and the perspective of Confederate soldiers who deserted to Union lines in the conflict’s final months.
This volume deserves much praise and is arguably one of the finest collections of letters published in recent years. The compelling exchanges between Samuel and Ellen Woodworth reveal much about the hardships that confronted husband and wife during the Civil War, highlight how couples coped with those difficulties, and demonstrate the Civil War’s transformative effect on soldiers and civilians.
Jonathan A. Noyalas is director of Shenandoah University’s McCormick Civil War Institute and a professor in the history department at Shenandoah. He is the author or editor of fifteen books including Slavery & Freedom in the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War Era (University Press of Florida, 2021).