This Will Make a Man of Me: The Life and Letters of a Teenage Officer in the Civil War by James M. Scythes. Lehigh University Press, 2016. Cloth, ISBN: 978-1611462180. $75.00.
2nd Lieutenant Thomas Jefferson Howell, Co. I, 3rd New Jersey Infantry, at age seventeen was easily one of the youngest commissioned officers in the American Civil War. Even though his period of service was quite brief, he wrote a goodly number of letters to various family members, and these have survived as either original manuscripts or transcripts. John M. Scythes has written something of a hybrid volume, including substantial narrative introductions for two sections of edited letters followed by a conclusion dealing with the regiment’s participation in the Battle of Gaines’s Mill and Howell’s death.
Born into a large, somewhat prosperous, and reform-minded family, Howell received a classical education. At the end of 1861 he enlisted in the Union army, both out of a strong sense of duty and the need to earn extra income for his parents and siblings. An idealistic and at times priggish young man, Howell complained about officers and enlisted men who swore, drank, and ignored the Sabbath. Yet not surprisingly for a teenage boy, he always wanted to be remembered to the young women back home.
The first section of letters, running from mid-January to mid-April 1862, are in many ways typical of an average run of soldier correspondence, filled with concern about family and the routines of army life. Some boots hurt his feet, shelter from the cold is a problem, and there are always the expected comments about food. Howell occasionally offered a sharp opinion, such as his belief that Alexandria, Virginia, was such a nest of rebels that it deserved to be burned. Fortunately, he despised guard duty and offered detailed descriptions of that onerous task. Many letters reflected the experiences of a young man growing up in a hurry. He proudly reported not falling behind other soldiers during a strenuous march and seemed to think a great deal about how he was measuring up as an officer. As did many soldiers writing home, he included at times withering and certainly candid assessments of regimental officers; despite his youth, Howell stood up for himself and did not hesitate on occasion to challenge his superiors’ judgment. He greatly cared about what officers and especially the men under his charge thought of him.
Like many a young officer, he took a romantic view of war. On his way to the Virginia Peninsula as part of McClellan’s spring 1862 offensive, Howell wrote to a much beloved sister: “Imagine me with a sword in one hand, a revolver in the other up to my middle in water going ashore.” He then adds, “It will be extremely interesting, will it not?” (93). It would prove all too interesting as it turned out, but once Howell lands, his letters in the second section of correspondence—running from mid-April to late-June 1862—became considerably more revealing. They reflected the eager anticipation of an earnest young officer at last about do battle with the enemy. He had such faith in Gen. George B. McClellan that he promised to soon be writing home from Richmond. Howell was appalled by what he saw of slavery and at one point confessed that he would like to shoot down the rebels “like dogs.” (101). Like many other men during this campaign, he reported the often-appalling toll on the soldiers from heat and disease. He noted how other young soldiers were so full of spunk that they could barely be restrained from crowing to nearby Confederate pickets about a Union victory in the western theater. Howell possessed the mercurial temperament of youth and even planned to resign his commission once he had experienced combat. Unfortunately, his regiment was heavily engaged at Gaines’s Mill, and though he emerged unscathed during some of the heaviest fighting, he was blown apart by an artillery round late in the day. It took some time for his family to confirm the death, and efforts to recover the body failed.
Aside from a weak index, this is a well-done volume. Scythes edits the letters quite well, and the contextual information is both detailed and useful because the author is interested in Howell as both a Civil War officer and as young man coming of age. The letters themselves are often mundane, but researchers will find some gems, and general readers will appreciate how Scythes has managed to effectively tell the story of this young man and his comrades.
George C. Rable, the author of many books on the Civil War era, is Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama.