Turned Inside Out, by Frank Wilkeson, with an introduction by James M. McPherson, University of Nebraska Press, $11.95 paperback.
In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, Civil War memoirs became a staple of the American book trade. One of the first, and best, was Frank Wilkeson’s 1886 Recollections of a Private Soldier. (Its new title presumably refers both to the condition of a divided land and to what battlefield looters did to the pockets of the dead.) Wilkeson, seized by “war fever,” ran away from home in upstate New York and joined the army at the end of 1863. By that time, the Union was already scraping the bottom of the manpower barrel, and the idealistic teenager found himself in the midst of a rabble of “bounty volunteers,” men who had joined up purely for the lump sum they received and were treated, with good reason, like convict labor. A constant refrain of this book is the inferior quality of the soldiers U.S. Grant tried to mold into an army–but then, Wilkeson reflects dourly, the officers often weren’t much better. This book is hardly what he would describe as “epauletted history”–war as remembered by those who ran it. It is, rather, war as it was endured by those who were run–or who ran.
Wilkeson’s combat experience was compacted into the first seventy days of U.S. Grant’s campaign in northern Virginia, from the Wilderness to Petersburg–one of the worst intervals of our military history. There are images here that you aren’t likely to forget: the men about to fight in the Wilderness coming on the year-old bones of the Chancellorsville dead; the sallow, weary face of Grant, “expressionless as a pine board”; the piles of legs and arms outside a surgeon’s tent; or the general depression of the Union army before the disaster of Cold Harbor. Substitute Aubers Ridge or the Artois for Petersburg, and you could be reading about the Allied trench frustrations of 1915. No wonder historians like Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote have mined these pages to such vivid effect. Wilkeson’s words have a robustness that remind us that colorful writing was in the American air, and contemporaries like Mark Twain didn’t come out of the blue (or the gray).