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CWT Book Review: Reluctant Rebel

By Peter S. Carmichael
8/31/2018 • Civil War Times Magazine

Reluctant Rebel: The Secret Diary of Robert Patrick, 1861-1865

When it rained, Confederate quartermaster clerk Robert Patrick could not resist the inevitable tide of melancholy  surging over his personal levee, leaving him stranded and isolated from those close to him, but more in touch with his own feelings. “I am sitting alone gazing listlessly out upon the dreary prospect, the falling rain-drops, the dripping leaves, and the flying clouds rapidly chasing each other across the darkened heavens. I look back to the events of the past three years,” he wrote in his diary on June 26, 1864. A native of Louisiana, Patrick felt conflicted about a war that he had embraced with great enthusiasm after Abraham Lincoln’s election. Since Fort Sumter he had seen too many men die, and too many acts of destruction by the enemy to damn the Confederate cause. But the corruption and inefficiency of government officials, the constant bungling of generals and the intense suffering of the Southern people caused him to wonder if he had not contributed to some horrific crime against humanity. As is the case with most journals, Patrick’s diary served as a confessional, and his entries are reflective and descriptive, critical and empathetic, serious-minded and satirical, richly detailed and broadly insightful. The result is an unvarnished account of the Confederate experience. It was published by Louisiana State University Press in 1959 and reprinted in 1996.

Civil War soldiers, like all historical actors, were very self-conscious as to how they represented their experiences to outsiders. Even though many men denounced the people back home for entertaining romantic notions about soldiering, the rank-and-file often contributed to civilian naiveté through letters that sanitized military life. A private diary gave Patrick the freedom to write about the dark side of the war without any regard to audience. His testimony about civilian conditions during the 1864 Atlanta campaign is particularly stark and heart wrenching. On a foraging expedition in the Georgia countryside Patrick came across a dilapidated house filled with starving children and women. He could not understand why there were plenty of women and babies but no husbands. The matriarch of the family explained: “I have three grandchildren but none of my daughters are married. Can’t you see how it is?” Patrick finally realized that he had broached a rather delicate subject as the elderly woman explained that the presence of soldiers had aroused the lascivious nature of the young women in the community. Blaming women for the sexual advances of men typified the thinking of the time, but it is surprising that Patrick admitted to his own lusty desires. He ultimately steered clear, however, after learning “every one of them had the itch, and it was not the camp itch which I have seen the soldier have, but it was the 7-year sort.”

Patrick, it appears, could control his sexual impulses, but he could not conquer his desire for whiskey. His drinking problem started before the war, and his struggles with alcoholism continued in the army, fueling Patrick’s darkly cynical view of the world. He rarely, as a result, saw nobility or idealism in his comrades and focused instead on their roguish behavior. For instance, he encountered a Tennessee soldier who inquired about the foraging possibilities at a nearby farm. “Well, did you see anything up that way that looked like it was fit to eat?” the Tennessean asked. “Yes,” Patrick responded. “I saw a pair of old pants hanging on a fence that I think would make good soup.” “Kiss my ass and go to hell, God damn you” yelled the Tennessean in response.

Patrick’s nasty encounter cannot be easily reconciled with our romantic perception of Civil War soldiers as a united band of brothers. The basic desire for survival in a chaotic environment of killing and desperation defined military life. It should come as no surprise that men were cruel, selfish and hateful living under such conditions. What is shocking, however, is that Americans have largely forgotten the dehumanized Civil War soldier. We need Patrick’s brutal honesty. His painful rendering of war makes Reluctant Rebel one of the most compelling and disturbing accounts to come from a Confederate soldier.

 

Originally published in the May 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here

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