Book Review: The Boys of Diamond Hill: The Lives and Civil War Letters of the Boyd Family of Abbeville County, South Carolina (Second Edition)

The Boys of Diamond Hill: The Lives and Civil War Letters of the Boyd Family of Abbeville County, South Carolina (Second Edition). Edited by J. Keith Jones. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2024. Softcover, 253 pp. $39.95.

Reviewed by Tim Talbott

The Second Edition of The Boys of Diamond Hill: The Lives and Civil War Letters of the Boyd Family of Abbeville County, South Carolina serves as an excellent example of the fact that period primary sources continue to emerge from family and private collections to inform us about the lives and experiences of common soldiers and those on the home front. Included in this second edition are over 30 previously unpublished letters and two period images that give readers and researchers more insight into the extended Boyd family’s Civil War.

When South Carolina seceded from the United States on December 20, 1860, Abbeville County was among the Palmetto State’s most stalwart proponents for departing the Federal Union. Even today, the town of Abbeville says that it is the “Birthplace and Deathbed of the Confederacy,” claiming that a meeting about a month before South Carolina’s secession convention precipitated that eventual outcome and that Jefferson Davis and his administration dissolved the Confederacy there in 1865.[1] Abbeville is also the birthplace of antebellum political icon John C. Calhoun—he of the pro-slavery, nullification, and states’ rights schools—and the home of lawyer, Confederate general, and state politician Samuel McGowan.

Robert Boyd, an Irish immigrant and the 60-year patriarch of the Boyd family, eventually sent five sons and a son-in-law to fight for the Confederacy. Only one returned home. The soldiers in the family served in several different units: Daniel, Pressley, and Andrew Boyd in the 7th South Carolina Infantry; Thomas Boyd in the 19th South Carolina Infantry; William Boyd in the 1st South Carolina Rifles; and Fenton Hall in the 6th South Carolina Cavalry. While most of the family fought in the Army of Northern Virginia, Thomas’s 19th South Carolina was in the Army of Tennessee, and Fenton Hall’s cavalry regiment served around Charleston.

The diversity of their units and service locations, and thus the soldiers’ varied experiences, give the collection a special flavor one does not usually receive from a solo soldier collection. In addition, the letters cover all four years of the war. While the majority of the letters appear to come from the pen of Daniel Boyd, the other family soldiers are well represented, too, as well as a few from soldiers outside the family in their regiments, and at least one from a stranger who tried to assist William Boyd after he was mortally wounded at Gaines’ Mill.

As a preview to almost all of the letters Jones offers important context—sometimes brief and sometimes extensive depending on what the letter references. Endnotes provide readers with citations for the sources Jones referenced to create the letters’ contextual previews, but there are no citations within the letters. This is unfortunate because in some instances there is no explanation for a number of the individuals who receive mention in the letters. Readers are left to wonder who they are. For example, William Boyd wrote on April 29, 1862: “Got a cook for my mess and nother. His name is Tom Williams. He is nerly as white as I am. We give twelve dollars a month.” (62) In several places family members also mention a John Lee, including one place where William writes his wife: “I think if you can do without [Lee] you had beter let him go if he cant for the pay. Take him up and giv him fifty lashes an send him to Donilsvill an put him on the cars and send him to me and I will pay him. We want a cook.” (56) Later, Fenton Hall also mentions John Lee as doing some cooking for him in camp. In yet another place, Hall writes his wife: “You can tel John Lees mouther that he is well an harty. He has growed a hep.” (116) Was John Lee a free person of color since pay is mentioned? Was he an enslaved person who the Boyds and Hall rented for camp chores? At least some comment (if only to say research turned up nothing) concerning these individuals in the letter’s preview or in the endnotes would help readers.

Three appendices conclude the book. The first explains the family relationships between the Boyds, the Crowthers, the Halls, and the Alewines to readers. The second offers the rosters for the companies with whom the Boyd brothers and Fenton Hall served. The final appendix provides five fragmented or undated letters.

The Second Edition of The Boys of Diamond Hill is a welcome addition to the ever-growing body of soldiers’ published letter collections. These letters provide readers with important perspectives about duty, service, and family connections. Students of the common soldier will find them especially helpful.

[1] Abbeville’s History, accessed March 30, 2024.

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