Reluctant Witnesses: Children’s Voices from the Civil War, by Emmy E. Werner, Westview Press, 5500 Central Avenue, Boulder, CO 80301-2877, 208 pages, $24.
“In these few months, my childhood had slipped away from me,” wrote Celine Fremaux, a 12-year-old girl from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who single-handedly took care of her six younger siblings, including a newborn brother, through the bombardment of her hometown and the siege of nearby Port Hudson. “Necessity, human obligations, family pride and patriotism had taken entire possession of my little emaciated body.” Celine’s handful of words embody Reluctant Witnesses, which in its own way is more gripping than the customary offerings of martial literature on tactics, strategy, and technology.
Author Emmy E. Werner is wholly impartial, selecting a comparable sample of children to represent the North and the South. The writers quoted represent, of course, a special group–those old enough to keep a coherent diary or write a decipherable letter, yet young enough to be called children.
Werner is a professor of child psychology who has studied the effects of violence and civil unrest in Greece, Rwanda, and Bosnia. In this book, she focuses on the experiences of 120 Civil War children, not in the format of “scientific” psychology, with its graphs, charts, and statistical analyses, but in the raw and poignant form of first-person experiences. Her selections reflect many of the war’s best-known battles and campaigns: Fort Sumter, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Fort Wagner, Atlanta, and Columbia.
Through children’s eyes, we see exploding shells, mangled corpses, burning cities, starving prisoners, screaming horses, weeping mothers, legless brothers, rivers of blood–images that have been transformed through the alchemy of nostalgia into glorious armies in blue and gray marching proudly under banners of red, white, and blue. In Werner’s tales of innocence lost we also see a remarkable resilience, the ability of the human spirit to conquer terror and destruction and emerge scarred, yet somehow stronger. An Illinois boy, 16-year-old George Drake, wrote as the Atlanta Campaign ended, “I tell you father that I never regret the day that I enlisted for if I had staid out of the army and went to school all the time I would not of learned half so mutch.” We see not only the strengths of accelerated maturation, but also the seeds of reconciliation. Carrie Berry, 10 years old, kept a diary through the siege and occupation of Atlanta. In her bullet-riddled home, she wrote as the Yankees departed for the coast: “our sargent left us this morning. We all were sorry to part with him. He has been very good to us.” Mary Janney, a 15-year-old girl from Columbia, South Carolina, saw her house burst into flames–and then saw a Quaker Yankee rescue her trunk and share his rations with her.
James Newton, a teenage soldier from Wisconsin, wrote during the siege of Vicksburg: “It is a pretty sight to see the shells from the mortars going up higher and higher until they look as though they were clear up among the stars…. Some of them burst high in the air…dealing death to the inhabitants.” In just a few dozen words, Newton captured both the awe and the horror of modern weaponry. William Smith, a 15-year-old soldier of the 14th Illinois, arrived at Andersonville Prison and saw the “great mass of gaunt, unnatural-looking beings, soot-begrimed, and clad in filthy tatters…. I never felt so utterly depressed….” The next morning he and six other equally young men met and resolved to never lose hope and to support each other spiritually. All seven survived the prison’s abomination.
Young Confederate Henry Stanley described an even younger peer who stood beside him, waiting to attack at Shiloh. The lad was “a boy of seventeen, Henry Parker…. he drew attention to some violets at his feet and said, ‘It would be a good idea to put a few into my cap. Perhaps the Yanks won’t shoot me if they see me wearing such flowers, for they are a sign of peace.”
An ancient adage says, “Old men for counsel; young men for war.” The wisdom and grace that hangs like a nimbus over so many of these young writers suggests that just the opposite might be true. The perceptions of these boys and girls seem far wiser than those of the hotheads of both North and South who fanned the flames of our worst national disaster. We can be grateful to Werner for bringing their words to us today.
Thomas P. Lowry