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Book Review: The Union Must Stand: The Civil War Diary of John Quincy Adams Campbell, Fifth Iowa Volunteer Infantry (edited by Mark Grimsley and Todd D. Miller): ACW

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: August 11, 2001 
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The Union Must Stand: The Civil War Diary of John Quincy Adams Campbell, Fifth Iowa Volunteer Infantry, edited by Mark Grimsley and Todd D. Miller, University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 2000, $38.


The outpouring of Civil War-era diaries and memoirs continues unabated. Fueled by the historiographical trend in recent years of examining the common Civil War soldier and his world in depth, the publication of these inner thoughts and memories of Rebs and Yanks has humanized the war in a variety of ways. The quality of these writings is as varied as their settings and circumstances. Some, however, do stand out as first-rate contributions to our insatiable desire to peer into the minds and hearts of the men on the firing lines and to follow the ups and downs of camp and civilian life during the war.

An example of the latter is The Union Must Stand: The Civil War Diary of John Quincy Adams Campbell, Fifth Iowa Volunteer Infantry (University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 2000, $38), edited by Mark Grimsley and Todd D. Miller. Campbell had a journalistic background. Perhaps as a result, the Iowan's accounts of his wartime experiences in the Western theater with the 5th Iowa are colorful and insightful as well as thought provoking. His writings provide a good test case for the theses of historians Gerald Linderman, Bell Wiley and James McPherson, among others, as Campbell at times made rather profound observations on the complex social and political threads that permeated the war's causes and effects.

Campbell saw slavery as the chief villain that had caused and perpetuated the war. He had little sympathy for the Southern civilians, considered personal honor a necessity for being a successful soldier and had strong views supporting the remaking of the Southern economy and society as punishment for those who supported the rebellion. Campbell also railed against rampant drunkenness in the Army and criticized Union soldiers who solicited black prostitutes as a disgrace to their race. Thus Campbell, despite the piety he displayed as he looked askance at slaveholders, demonstrated his own racial prejudices. This kind of racial dichotomy, deploring slavery on the one hand while voicing racism on the other, is typical of many Union memoirs.

A sampling of Campbell's comments reveals the depth of his writings. Regarding his unit's participation in the Battle of Iuka, Campbell observed: "Our loss is great but our honor is safe. I cannot particularize instances of daring, or bravery, for all did well." Of his personal experience at the September 19, 1862, battle, especially his reaction to the carnage, Campbell said: "I felt no emotion nor sorrow–there was a strange, unaccountable lack of feeling with me that followed me through the entire action. Out of a battle and in a battle, I find myself two different beings."

Campbell's own trials by fire made him most unforgiving of war opponents in the North. "When I hear of traitors boldly proclaiming their hostility to our government in the legislative halls of the North–and when I hear so many privates in our army express a desire to have the war closed on any terms, my faith in the American people is much shaken," he wrote. "But the contest must be continued and directed by the true patriots of the land."

The Iowan voiced particular disgust for Southerners who allegedly harbored guerrillas. He seemed to regret the destruction wrought by Union soldiers on Southern civilians, but noted "guerrilla warfare must be stopped." When Abraham Lincoln was re-elected president in 1864, Campbell trumpeted: "The day for conciliation is passed. The day for subjugation is at hand. In my judgement, the victory of November 8th, is the greatest victory of the war."

These comments underscore the observations of editor Grimsley in the book's introduction: "What made Campbell's diary so striking? First, his entries were regular, fleshed out when events warranted, and extremely lucid. Second, he noticed a great deal–the antics of his fellow soldiers, the attitudes and behavior of Southern civilians (both white and black), the rhythms of camp life and the strange out-of-body sensations of battle.

But perhaps most important for historians and readers, Campbell had well-articulated opinions about what it all meant. We know a great deal about what Civil War soldiers did. Campbell's diary tells us much about why they did it.

Campbell's memoir, then, does not merely take the reader on a guns-and-trumpets tour of the Western theater battles in which he participated–including Island No. 10, Iuka, Corinth, Grant's final Vicksburg campaign and siege and the Chattanooga campaign. His battlefield reflections are vivid, to be sure, but it is his contemplations of the war–what brought it about, the interactions of human beings caught up in it and the cruelties, divisiveness and long-range ramifications of it–that single him out as an outstanding chronicler of the war.

As a bonus, the editors have appended to Campbell's memoir a group of letters he wrote to his hometown newspaper, the Ripley Bee. The missives have something of the flavor of reports by war correspondents–colorful and somewhat shallow–but they no doubt intrigued readers back home who were eager for news from the front. In the absence of in-depth analysis, Campbell's writing talents enable him to spin entertaining anecdotes about the people and the places he encounters. His continual derogatory remarks about all things Southern no doubt earned him great admiration from the folks back home.

In a newspaper letter dated January 19, 1863, Campbell did get serious in making pointed comments about slavery: "I do not intend to deny that the slaves are well fed and well clothed–that they are happy–that they love slavery–nor will I deny that they love their masters. Perhaps they do. Perhaps they don't. But do they desire to be free? I answer emphatically, they do. Nothing but the innate love of liberty in man could have caused the wide spread desire for freedom that is manifested among the slaves wherever our army goes."

Later in the same letter, Campbell pointedly editorializes, "The South will succeed in her rebellion and establish slavery on a National basis or the North will whip them and slavery die." In his view that was the Southern position, and, no doubt, his own.

In summary, this is one of the best published works of the Civil War memoir genre. John Quincy Adams Campbell reminds us in his remarkable writing that generalizations about the soldiers in that war are risky propositions at best. The patriotic Iowan left behind a wonderfully rich take on the conflict. Historians and buffs alike will find this volume entertaining, fascinating and instructive.

Michael B. Ballard
Mississippi State University




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