Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Book Review: The Soldier’s Pen

According to the jacket cover, author Robert E. Bonner, "has done something remarkable – he’s given us the ability to view a long-past war through the eyes of the average enlisted man." I would have to agree. Mr. Bonner combed through more than 60,000 documents from the Gilder Lehrman Collection and chose for publication a fine sample of letters, drawings, and diary entries of enlisted men north and south, black and white. After initial introductions, he takes you on a journey following a unique collection of men from enlistment to either mustering out or, sadly in some cases, death. This allows the opportunity not only to hear the soldier’s thoughts at critical junctures of the war but also to watch the attitudes and beliefs expressed by each soldier change as the conflict progresses.

The letters include comments on issues too numerous to attempt to list comprehensively. However, some of the topics addressed include politics, religion, current battles, deserters, army life, arming slaves/free negroes, the health of friends, the Emancipation Proclamation, attitudes of the day, duty, patriotism, requests for needed items, sacrifice, and of course an incredible longing for home. Also included was the occasional angry admonishment directed towards those at home who did not vote for, or associate with, parties or persons that support the ideals for which the soldier now routinely risked his life or for which some of his friends had died.

Although not difficult to follow, the letters as presented offer a snapshot of the confusion many must have felt as they tried to understand the aspects of army life with which their loved ones contended in both the northern and southern armies. The collection offers varied points of view upon a great number of subjects but not in an orderly or necessarily predictable fashion. For example, after primarily asking for supplies from home, the next set of letters may discuss the resentment and anger felt towards deserters or the growing desire to pursue desertion. "The Soldier’s Pen" also occasionally includes something all too commonly lacking in much civil war literature. As can be seen from the picture below, the soldiers, despite their sometimes dire circumstances, could display a refreshingly lively sense of humor.

The text also included some rather interesting surprises. I quote part of the letter with one unexpected passage with the original spelling unchanged. "…we have taken some negro rebel prisoners. One was caught in a tree fireing at our scurmishers, there was a white reb also with him but they killed the white one and captured the black one and he declared if he was back there he would fight us just as hard again…" As can be seen, the author opted to leave the original wording and punctuation untouched. Although challenging to read at times, it offered an unsanitized vision of what the soldiers relayed to their loved ones at home. Mr. Bonner also included photographs of some of the letters and some very unique drawings by a creative but unfortunately anonymous soldier. In the center folds (see above), the reader finds several color photographs of paintings done by one soldier at various stages throughout his time in the field. Again, the changes in the imagery clearly indicate the progression of attitude and experiential change during the war.

Because he obviously could not include all of the letters that he read, Mr. Bonner offers his insights on trends and tendencies throughout his book, often relaying his opinions concerning the degree to which the letters included represented those in the larger collection. But the letters, and thus the soldiers themselves, rightfully never lose center stage. In this manner, the soldiers from north and south can once again speak to those willing to listen about their individual experiences during this long and complex war.



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All original material Copyright © 2006. All Rights Reserved

Personal note: As mentioned with previous reviews, in the interest of fair disclosure, I wish to note that I received a copy of this book specifically for review. As a condition for agreeing to write a review however, I stated that, if in my judgment I found this book unjustly biased or lacking the appropriate degree of scholarship, I would not write a negative review but would simply remain silent. The presence of the above is again my acknowledgment that I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

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