Sunday, February 16, 2014

Review of Civil War Talks in The Journal of Southern History

"There can be no doubt . . . that Newsome, Horn, and Selby have assembled a rich collection of war reminiscences that will appeal to scholars and enthusiasts alike."  

The most recent issue of The Journal of Southern History has a great review of Civil War Talks from Andre M. Fleche, author of The Revolution of 1861.  Fleche's piece goes to the heart of the project and effectively captures our goals in putting the book together.  He begins by discussing George Bernard's effort in the 1890's to publish first-hand accounts from Civil War veterans in Petersburg and elsewhere. Bernard's work resulted in the 1892 book, War Talks of Confederate Veterans, as well as in the compilation of additional material for a second volume that never reached publication. Fleche commends our detective work in digging up that missing second volume one hundred years later, which, in his words, is a "collector's trove of previously unpublished Bernard papers."

In addition to this background, the review relates the broad scope of Civil War Talks, which spans much of the war in the east.  The volume contains detailed accounts of Norfolk at the war's start, recollections of the 1862 Richmond and Antietam campaigns, little known stories of William Mahone's brigade at Gettysburg, eyewitness accounts of J.E.B. Stuart's mortal wounding during the Overland Campaign, and much material about the fighting at Petersburg.  The book also includes Mahone's own correspondence with Bernard about Seven Pines, Malvern Hill, the Weldon Railroad, Burgess Mill, and the Appomattox Campaign.

Fleche's review also touches on the book's implications for issues of historical memory.  He notes that the reminiscences of Bernard and his colleagues, typical of many soldier accounts, focus on battles and camp life, and generally avoid the broader issues underlying the war, such as slavery.  Some of Bernard's contributors hit on themes voiced by many Confederate veterans, including the notion of the "loyal slave" and the "independence and individuality" of the Confederate soldier. Fleche also mentions Bernard's wartime statements about the "subjection" of the southern states and the "invasion" of Virginia's soil.  Later in life, however, Bernard became somewhat of a reformer, taking a different tack from many of his fellow Confederate veterans.  Among other things, he supported the Readjuster Party, a black-white political alliance in Virginia, and advocated merit-based civil service reform, free from considerations of race and party.

Here are some more excerpts from the review:

"The result is a rich collection of primary sources on the military history of the Civil War that, at times, also speaks to issues of historical memory . . . . The editors do an excellent job of clearly but unobtrusively guiding the reader through the documents . . . .  The working historian will certainly appreciate the richness of the collection . . . .  Military historians will find the collection particularly useful."