Gentlemen Merchants: A Charleston Family’s Odyssey, 1828-1870
edited by Philip N. Racine, University of Tennessee Press
Brothers Henry and Louis Young wrote most of the Civil War–era letters in Gentlemen Merchants, an account of the prominent Gourdin and Young families in Charleston, S.C., over four decades. Their highly literate correspondence constitutes a significant resource on the Army of Northern Virginia and its officers. Between them, Henry and Louis served on the staffs of a half-dozen generals in Robert E. Lee’s army. Henry, in fact, served on Lee’s own staff for a time.
Henry’s remarks on Brig. Gen. Thomas Drayton, a friend of Jefferson Davis, typify his frankness. Referring to Drayton as “an infernal jackass” and “a small being,” Henry expresses his hope that someone would “break his skull for him,” speculating that otherwise Drayton would “murder” the rest of his men by incompetence. The Young boys admired most of the Confederate leaders they served with, however, and their accounts of W.W. Kirkland, W.H.C. Whiting, Robert Ransom, William MacRae, D.R. Jones and J.J. Pettigrew rank among the best contemporary descriptions of those generals.
Scores of people mentioned in the letters remain unidentified, while feeble attempts to identify many others land on the wrong name. A competent review could have led to improvements in transcription, editing and indexing before Gentlemen Merchants ever saw print. But while those faults reduce the book’s utility, they cannot squelch the virtues of the Young brothers’ letters.
Originally published in the December 2010 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.