Monday, June 8, 2009

Soldier's Pen Adds New Insight on the Common Soldier

In recent years a new interest in soldier’s correspondence from all of America’s wars to those on the home front has emerged corresponding with the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The current correspondence between deployed servicemen and women comprises primarily through email, which has left historians to ponder how future scholars will be able to use emails as primary sources and the fear that in a hundred years the bulk of email correspondence will be lost. The Civil War is a treasure trove of soldier correspondence as shown in Robert E. Bonner’s study The Soldier’s Pen: Firsthand Impressions of the Civil War (Hill and Wang, 2006). Using the wartime correspondence of sixteen soldiers, five for the Confederacy and eleven for the Union, Bonner uses the untapped Gilder Lehrman collection for his study.
One of the highlights of this book is that these writings of the sixteen soldiers had never before appeared in print, and these selections are only the tip of the iceberg of the Gilder Lehrman collection which houses more than sixty thousands documents dealing with all aspects of American history. For this book Bonner skillfully selected sixteen fascinating individuals to illustrate the common experiences of soldiers from both sides. The reader is introduced to Henry Berckhoff a German speaking New Yorker, who felt more comfortable representing his unit’s history in pictures instead of words; an anonymous Massachusetts soldier who filled his notebook with cartoons that showcased the lighter side of military service; and William Woodlin a free black who fought with the Eighth Regiment of the United States Colored Troops and kept a diary, a rarity for members of the USCT. These are just a few that are covered in Bonner’s book. Readers will notice a Union bias; the majority of the soldiers selected for this volume are fighting for the Union Army. Bonner does not address this in the introduction and it is unclear if the unequal representation is from the author’s own interest or from the holdings of the Gilder Lehrman collection.
Robert E. Bonner lets the soldier’s speak through their words and drawings with little intrusion. What the reader gets is a warts and all portrait of what these people were like, we read the painful letter of William Brunt to a friend detailing his divorce from his wife who “let passion instead of virtue rule her & became inconstant to me” while the couple was at a contraband camp that Brunt was the commanding officer (pg. 220). It is true that when reading a practically powerful primary source time fades away and it feels like the person is talking to you, and is evidenced with the soldier’s covered in this book. We become privy of their hopes and dreams of returning home to be with their families. We read Hillory Shifflet’s closing to his wife where he maintains that she is his “Dear wife untell Death,” tragically Shifflet would be killed at the Battle of Missionary three days later (pgs. 19, xix). Interspaced between the letters and diary entries Bonner provides an introduction that places the sources into the wider context of the war. This book is not a chronological travel through the Civil War, rather each chapter deals with a particular theme such as combat experiences and the political climate of the Union and Bonner uses the letters and diaries to illustrate his point. Bonner includes a brief biography of the soldier writers and artists at the beginning of the book that is indispensable and I returned to it many times while reading the book.
The Soldier’s Pen belongs on the shelf of all Civil War history buffs; Bonner has added an insightful work to the growing works on the experiences of the common soldier on both sides of the conflict. Of particular note for Civil War living historians, Bonner lets the writers speak for themselves with misspelled words and examples of nineteenth century grammar and dialect left intact. I liked that Bonner did not correct the writers or try to make it easier to understand some of the more rambling entries. Some of the letters will have to be read a couple of times to grasp what the author are intending to get across to his reader. Bonner only interjects his editorial pen when the soldier makes a reference to common slag that has since lost its meaning, but that is only done sparingly. My favorite soldier was the anonymous Massachusetts cartoonist who seems to be channeling Edvard Munch’s The Scream in his drawings of his possible alter ego “George” cutting his foot and wondering if “they miss me at home?” while on picket duty (pgs. 40, 54). And if you don’t laugh at “George” getting eaten by an alligator something is wrong with you (pg. 41)!
For those who have not visited the Gilder Lehrman Collection website it is an invaluable tool where visitors can search the vast collection online. I hope that The Soldier’s Pen is only the beginning of works that use the Gilder Lehrman Collection as its main source for scholars. If interested please visit:

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