Rebel at Large: The Diary of Confederate Deserter Philip Van Buskirk
edited by B.R. Burg, McFarland A blurb on the back wrap of Rebel at Large calls this diary “one of the most unusual produced during the Civil War.” Having read about 100 books—and reviewed a dozen or so of them in print—every year for several decades, I can validate that claim. This really is a peculiar book.
Philip C. Van Buskirk (1833-1903) had seen an amazingly broad slice of the globe before the Civil War. He went to the Mexican War as a youthful Marine Corps drummer, and to Japan with Commodore Perry. In 1861 he joined the “Winchester Boomerangs.” The quaintly named Boomerangs became a company in the 13th Virginia Infantry, a regiment first commanded by A.P. Hill. The 13th must have been the only Confederate regiment whose colonels all became generals; amazingly, half of the unit’s field-grade officers went on to brigadier rank or higher. Published primary accounts by Stanley Russell and Sam Buck of the Boomerangs understandably don’t mention Van Buskirk because he deserted after only a few months.
A diary from the ranks of the 13th would be a treat—but unfortunately Van Buskirk’s journal for that stretch did not survive. The war-date entries printed in this book cover 56 pages, and run from April 1863 to 1865. Van Buskirk served intermittently during that period as a hired drum instructor with the 22nd Virginia Infantry (Colonel George S. Patton’s regiment) and the 23rd and 26th battalions. He saw action, and described it in interesting terms, at White Sulphur Springs.
The sparse military content of Van Buskirk’s diary would hardly warrant publication. Instead, Rebel at Large affords a rich array of primary material about life in western Virginia—West Virginia by mid-1863—and western Maryland. Van Buskirk roamed that region working as a tutor and musician, and his firsthand evidence about conditions there makes this unusual and worthwhile reading. Hard-used civilians, bushwhackers and thugs, and newly freed slaves people his account.
Burg, an expert in “sexuality among seafarers” according to the cover, devotes much attention to Van Buskirk’s frequent comments about sexual interests—his own and what he saw in others. That recurrent strain contributes mightily to the “unusual” rubric the publishers have embraced.
Van Buskirk’s peregrinations throughout western Virginia, West Virginia and western Maryland surely would be far more intelligible to the average reader if they were accompanied by maps. Spots like Bungers Mill, Lewisburg, Summersville, Pour, Bulltown, Wills Creek and Oakland will not be familiar to most. Despite that, the publisher asks a hefty price for a slim alltext paperback, in the McFarland custom. That will understandably daunt some potential readers. The decidedly unusual aspects of Van Buskirk’s story, however, make Rebel at Large a volume worth owning for serious students of the war.
Originally published in the October 2010 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.