A Gunner in Lee’s Army: The Civil War Letters of Thomas Henry Carter
Edited by Graham T. Dozier, University of North Carolina Press 2014, $35.16
Each year a number of collections of Civil War soldier letters, diaries or memoirs are published. Though all contribute something to our understanding of the war, most cast only a sliver of light on what we already know. Few offer the type of content and perspective the letters of Thomas Henry Carter do.
He was born into the prominent Carter family near Richmond, a family wealthy in both land and slaves. He graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in 1849, but chose to pursue medicine for a career as his grandfather had. He studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and remained after graduation to work in a local city hospital to gain experience. But family matters drew him back to Virginia and away from a career in medicine. When secession and war intruded upon his life, Carter immediately set out to recruit an artillery company, which organized on June 1, 1861, as the King William Artillery.
Carter rose from battery commander to battalion command, and eventually to Second Corps chief of artillery. He could be blunt to his superiors when he encountered what he considered incompetence or poor tactics. After his division commander, Gen. Robert Rodes, placed one of the divisional batteries in an exposed position where it suffered heavy damage at Gettysburg, Carter rode up and demanded to know what “fool put that battery yonder.” Such was the respect for Carter’s tactical skill that after a pause, Rodes merely responded that Carter had better withdraw the guns.
Carter served under many who became legendary in the Army of Northern Virginia’s history: Lee, Jackson, D.H. Hill, Richard Ewell, Rodes, Jubal Early and John Gordon. His letters contain frank, refreshingly honest and often penetrating assessments of them all. “I have no great faith in our corps commanders,” he wrote about Gens. Ewell and A.P. Hill in early fall 1863. Of Early, Carter observed during the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864, “I believe Early to be a patriot but a selfish man who is desirous of monopolizing all the glory.” Before Carter’s pen we see these renowned Confederate leaders as fully human, some heroic and inspiring, and others selfish and sometimes brutal.
A brief review cannot do this book full justice. It is without question the most important collection of letters from a member of the Army of Northern Virginia to be published in many years. Graham Dozier’s editing is superb, and he also ably fleshes out Carter’s life to place his letters in context. If there is any disappointment it is that there are several periods in the war where no letters from Carter survive, one of them being the Gettysburg Campaign, another the 1864 Overland Campaign. But the quality of the surviving letters more than compensates for these lapses in correspondence. This is surely a book not to be missed.
Originally published in the March 2015 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.