GALLGHER & CUSHMAN (eds.): Civil War Witnesses and Their Books (2021)

Civil War Witnesses and Their Books: New Perspectives on Iconic Works edited by Gary W. Gallagher and Stephen Cushman. Louisiana State University Press, 2021. Cloth, ISBN: 978-0-8071-7580-4. $45.00.

Civil War Witnesses collects eight, carefully crafted and extensively researched essays that deliver on the promises set forth in the subtitle. According to the editors, the works under consideration were “written by civilians and combatants, men and women, northerners and southerners.” Some of the works are well known; others are rarely studied. All but one could have been read by contemporaries, and all have particular resonance for today’s readers.

Elizabeth R. Varon opens the anthology by examining James Longstreet’s memoir, From Manassas to Appomattox [1896]. No Southerner had his postwar reputation fall farther among diehard Confederates than Longstreet; he quickly became the whipping boy of Lost Cause proponents who labeled him a traitor to his party, his country, and his race. Varon starts from the premise that “scholarly treatments of Longstreet have painted him as a social outcast, a political lone wolf, and as his own literary worst enemy” whose “public accounts of his own war record and of his political purposes were mired in self-defeating mistakes and misrepresentations.” But, according to Varon, “Longstreet was not a lone wolf, but instead a man with powerful allies in the South as well as the North.” Furthermore, Varon convincingly argues that Longstreet was not politically naive, but “an influential Republican political operative, determined to chart a new course for the South.” While Longstreet’s memoir, in which he tried to portray himself as a proponent of sectional reconciliation, received high praise in the North, Varon demonstrates that it “fell short of a full rehabilitation among southern whites.”

William A. Blair tackles Senator Henry Wilson’s massive three-volume The Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America, which appeared in print between 1872 and 1877. Critically well received in its own time but rarely cited today, Blair maintains that Wilson “produced a work that, in its interpretation, is in many ways in synch with histories written in the twenty-first century.” Blair goes so far as to argue that Wilson’s tome “is one of the most significant Civil War books that few people will ever read, written by one of the most important political figures of the era whom few people remember.”

A Southern Woman’s Story, first published in 1879, recounts the experiences of Phoebe Yates Pember (nee Levy) while serving as a nurse at Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond. Recognized by scholars as an excellent resource illustrating the harsh realities of practicing medicine in the Confederate South during the war, Sarah L. Gardner finds more to be found in Pember’s published reminiscences. “Pember used her reminiscences not only to recount her wartime service,” Gardner maintains, “but also to establish a persona, one that belied her familial and financial circumstances. Through her hospital work and her accounting of it, Pember attempted to create a new life for herself.” Three versions of Pember’s reminiscences were published; Gardner concludes that because they “appeared a three critical periods of Civil War myth making, it illustrates the contours of Civil War memory in ways that other texts cannot.”

The Union side of the war is described from two viewpoints: a general and a foot soldier. Stephen Cushman meticulously dissects George B. McClellan’s posthumous memoir, and M. Keith Harris argues that John D. Billings’s Hardtack and Coffee does more than describe life of the ordinary soldier in camp and on campaign. Cushman delves into McClellan’s Own Story, primarily written by William Prime, the general’s literary executor, and provocatively asks, “Can one damn, censure, and repudiate the ‘bastardized’ product of William Prime’s ‘protective editing’ and still gobble up, with a good, hearty appetite, the fruits of Prime’s labor?” Harris reveals that Billings’s memoir “did a great deal to capture the essence of the Union cause and the sentiments within the ranks of enlisted men concerning his and his comrades’ former Rebel enemies — points modern scholars and others often overlook.”

J. Matthew Gallman gives heft to wealthy New York matron Maria Lydig Daly’s Diary of a Union Lady 1861-1865, and Cecily N. Zander finds more than a protective widow’s devotion in Nelly Custer’s three memoirs about her life with flamboyant husband George. Gary Gallagher fittingly closes the anthology by analyzing how Walter H. Taylor, Lee’s assistant adjutant general in the Army of Northern Virginia, helped shape Confederate history and memory.

The editors promise a third volume; its contributors have a high bar to meet if they want to match the quality of the essays contained in this anthology.


Gordon Berg writes from Maryland. He has published scores of articles, reviews, and essays in various Civil War periodicals.

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KEEHN: Knights of the Golden Circle (2013)

Knights of the Golden Circle: Secret Empire, Southern Secession, Civil War by David C. Keehn. Louisiana State University Press, 2013.Cloth, ISBN: 0807150047. $39.95. Historians have long delved into the dynamics of…