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Few ways of exploring the Civil War yield greater satisfaction than reading letters written by soldiers. The conflict produced a staggering volume of correspondence. In the single month of April 1863, for example, the 60th New York Infantry—which mustered fewer than 400 men—mailed 3,855 letters. The U.S. Army counted roughly 700,000 men present for duty during that same period. Untold thousands of letters have been preserved in repositories or gathered in books or articles. Although any list of the best published letters is open to debate, three such volumes are worthy of anyone’s attention.

The first is Intrepid Warrior: Clement Anselm Evans, Confederate General From Georgia, Life, Letters and Diaries of the War Years, edited by Robert Grier Stephens Jr. (1992). Readers will find engrossing testimony from an officer who served in the Army of Northern Virginia throughout the war, rose to the rank of brigadier general and led a division in 1864 and 1865. A combination of letters and diary entries, the text includes excellent descriptions of battles, observations about the physical impact of the war, assessments of various commanders, and remarks about the state of morale inside Robert E. Lee’s army and on the home front. Some passages will surprise readers, as when Evans described Gettysburg as a hard but not disastrous battle. “The last fight at Gettysburg was a very fearful affair,” he informed his wife on July 8, 1863: “At some points the Yankees fought pretty stubborn but where ever we had a fair field we whipped & slaughtered them in great numbers. Both armies are now maneuvering & preparing for another battle. It will soon come. I do hope that these fights may be decisive.” Two days later, the Georgian termed the enemy “uneasy—not confident of their ability to whip us.”

Some of Evans’ best letters deal with the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign, which ended ignominiously for Jubal A. Early’s Army of the Valley at Cedar Creek on October 19. Confederates later argued about who should be blamed for that defeat, with supporters of Early and John B. Gordon often squaring off against one another. Evans, who fought under Gordon, recorded his opinion on October 21. “I can hardly see how anyone could describe a victory so glowingly as to exaggerate ours in the morning of the 19th, for on my word I never saw anything equal to it in all this war. The victory is due to the plan & management of Gen. Gordon, the defeat is due to Gen. Early.” Then, bitterly, he posed a question regarding “Old Jube”: “When shall we be relieved of this heavy incubus?”

The letters of General Alpheus S. Williams, who commanded a division and a corps in both the Eastern and Western theaters, reflect a higher level of responsibility than Evans’. From the Cannon’s Mouth: The Civil War Letters of General Alpheus S. Williams, edited by Milo M. Quaife (1959), illuminates myriad aspects of the war through descriptions of battles and places, unvarnished assessments of Union generals, and revealing material about important political and social issues. Whether readers are interested in details of military operations, daily life in the Army of the Potomac or William Tecumseh Sherman’s forces in Georgia and the Carolinas, morale among Union officers, or the war’s impact on the home front, there’s much to learn from this correspondence. They will also discover that Williams, who seemed incapable of dull writing, invariably holds their attention.

Two passages serve to convey the tenor of Williams’ letters. He called Maj. Gen. J.K.F. Mansfield, his commander in the XII Corps, “an officer of acknowledged gallantry” but also noted that at Antietam Mansfield was “greatly excited,” exhibited “a very nervous temperament and a very impatient manner,” and brought his corps onto the field in a formation that invited significant casualties. “Feeling that our heavy masses of raw troops were sadly exposed,” recorded Williams, “I begged him to let me deploy them in line of battle, in which the men present but two ranks or rows instead of twenty, as we were marching, but I could not move him.”

Although he had opposed destroying Confederate civilian property early in the war, Williams recounted almost cheerfully the harsh treatment of white South Carolinians during Sherman’s march across their state. “South Carolina will not soon forget us,” he claimed. “A blackened swath seventy miles wide marks the path over which we traveled….The first gun on Sumter was well avenged.” The Union army left South Carolina’s houses “comfortless and shabby, and its people at home rusty, ignorant, and forlorn.” Williams concluded of South Carolina’s Confederates that “the tornado of war may do them good in the end.”

Edwin H. Fay played a less important role than Evans or Williams, enlisting in a cavalry unit in Louisiana in April 1862 and spending most of the war in backwater duties in Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana. His letters, edited by Bell I. Wiley in This Infernal War: The Confederate Letters of Sgt. Edwin H. Fay (1958), reveal a man who chafed at military service and sought repeatedly to get out of uniform—yet developed a profound hatred of Yankees.

Within a month of enlisting, Fay commented that “the patriotism of our Co[mpany] at least is about consumed. If they were at home I don’t know a man who would volunteer with his present knowledge, unless I did.”

Despite constant complaining about tyrannical officers and other aspects of army life, Fay could not envision living under Union rule. After Vicksburg’s surrender, he wrote his wife: “I expect to murder every Yankee I ever meet when I can do so with impunity if I live a hundred years and peace is made in six months….There can be no fellowship between us forever.” In May 1865, he confessed: “My faith in God is bound to be destroyed if the South is at last subjugated.” Removal to a foreign country, he stated more than once, would be preferable to living in a United States controlled by the North.

The letters of these three soldiers’ transport readers to several military theaters and supply memorable vignettes. They exemplify the interpretive and descriptive riches of this genre of evidence.


Originally published in the December 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.