In Their Letters, In Their Words: Illinois Civil War Soldiers Write Home edited by Mark Flotow. Southern Illinois University Press, 2019. Paper, ISBN: 978-0809337637. $26.50.
Editor Mark Flotow’s inspiration for this book was a previous project that had him scouring the letters of Illinois soldiers to understand their wartime experiences. Realizing the impact of the soldiers’ own words—and the fact that a book featuring the writing of Illinois soldiers did not exist—he decided to write a “social history directly inspired by those with a boots-in-the-mud perspective” (x). He did so by presenting the words of 165 soldiers and sailors from the state of Illinois in selected and categorized passages, adding context and explanation as an editor. He chose to use private letters because they were both conversational and intimate (unlike diaries, which are private but not conversational, or official documents/letters written for public reading, which might have an intended message). He selected letters because the “writing was personal, detailed, and revealing, and their letters represent a treasure trove of intimate information for us seeking to understand the past” (ix).
The letters included are from the collections of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and represent sixty-four of the state’s counties. Illinois was an ideal subject for a book like this, Flotow states, because at the time it was a crossroads for the nation—rapidly developing and hosting a wide variety of people. Much of Illinois was rural, but there were growing urban centers such as Chicago. Illinois was the “land of Lincoln” and had the highest per capita rate of volunteer enlistment, but it also was politically diverse between Democrats and Republicans and migrants from every part of the nation.
Flotow organizes selections from this collection of letters thematically, roughly following the chronology of a soldier’s experience from his enlistment to mustering out. He begins by examining the place and importance of letter writing in the lives of these soldiers, and then marks the beginning of their journey with chapters on enlisting, camp life, soldiering, and maintaining a connection with the homefront through writing. He examines descriptions of combat and its aftermath, thoughts on the southern foe, musings about the officers and politicians leading them, and the transition out of soldiering and back into civilian life. There are also chapters on the prisoner of war experience and the physical hardships and diseases that affected soldiers.
Each chapter focuses on transcribed segments of letters that fit the section’s theme. Flotow adds a few sentences or paragraphs of explanation. The spotlight of the book is very much on the words of the soldiers themselves, and Flotow considers all 165 soldiers as contributors to the book. This is illustrated in Appendix A, in which Flotow provides a short biography of each soldier writer.
Because the majority of each chapter consists of segments of letters to present the soldier’s views as they wrote them, it is difficult to read the book as a continuous narrative. Flotow does a good job letting the soldier voice shine through in this book, so it would be most useful for a reader who is looking for a personal perspective on the war, or soldier writings on one of the chapter themes. He orients the book towards readers who may not have much previous knowledge about the Civil War, so the book does not really add anything new to Civil War scholarship, save publishing new primary material. However, because Flotow does not present the letters in full (he only publishes small segments), researchers would most likely still need to access the original letters within the archives.
Flotow’s sections of context are sound, and I especially appreciated the additional research he did to provide a biography of each soldier featured within the work. He provides a good explanation of soldiering and points readers to additional resources if they want more detailed information on a specific topic.
In sum, this book will be a valuable read for those interested in an on-the-ground perspective of the war, or for those doing research on Illinois soldiers. The book will also serve as a very good resource for students, genealogists, regimental historians, and those engaged in public history projects.
Kathleen Logothetis Thompson earned her Ph.D. in Nineteenth Century U.S./Civil War History from West Virginia University. A former seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, she is at work on her first book, tentatively titled War on the Mind.