By Ron Bardnell
In my twenty-one years of doing genealogical research I have documented 59 Civil War soldiers, both Union and Confederate. In all my research I have never been fortunate enough to find even one letter or diary written by any of them (negating, of course, my more famous and distantly related cousins Ulysses S. Grant, Benjamin F. Butler, John C. Breckinridge and James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok). Not that letters from Civil War soldiers are rare by any means, but I just have not been able to find any from my family.
In that respect, Ron Bardnell is fortunate, for in his wife’s family there has been passed down to her a cache of letters and a diaries written by her great great grandfather, George W. Belles, who enlisted as a private, for 3 years term or the duration of the war, in Company E of the 139th Pennsylvania Infantry on September 1st, 1862. Mr. Bardnell writes in his prologue, that the letters in diaries, were packed neatly away in a box in a closet corner, occasionally taken out and looked at and then replaced, a fate I am sure many, many similar cashes of Civil War soldiers letters and diaries share.
After his children had all grown and left home, Mr. Bardnell withdrew the box from the closet, once again, to read and enjoy its contents. He notes that George Belles seemed to posses a larger view of the times through which he lived, and realized the historical significance of the changes taking place. And then he turned to the last diary entry and read: “This book I want preserved while I remain and when I am gone I want it handed down to others who still survive as a memoranda of what I have seen and experienced myself. It relates the circumstances of each day the weather and other proceedings. This book I trust shall live when I with my companions in the army have passed away. I want its pages kept secure for generations to come for their benefit and good of all. Who may chance to read it preserve it reader in remembrance of me.” And thus, thanks to the valiant efforts of Mr. Bardnell, George W. Belles, has gotten his wish, his letters and diaries have been published in book form and thereby preserved for many future generations to come.
Mr. Bardnell, has arranged the letters chronologically, and grouped them into chapters. At the head of each, he has written some basic introductory information, filling the readers in on events and giving them an idea of what to look for in the content of the following letters.
Through the eyes of George W. Belles, the reader sees the first signs of war, as we follow the 139th Pennsylvania to Manassas, Virginia, just days after the Second Battle of Bull Run and their first military assignment, burying the dead. As we follow George Belles, through Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Grant’s Overland Campaign, and the Siege of Petersburg, we see the ranks of Company E dwindle, and George’s writing takes on a sense that he will not survive the war, his letters grow increasingly desperate and gloomy, and he beg others to pray for him.
I do have some very minor quibbles with the book. The first and most significant of which is that the book does not include a full transcript of Belles’ diaries. Secondly, Mr. Bardnell’s chapter introductions are in a standard printed text, while the transcribed letters are presented in a cursive font, though I understand the intent is to replicate the look of the letters, it gives the book a more amateurish presentation. And lastly there is no index, an omission which I find incredibly frustrating, as in my view every nonfiction book published should always include an index. A book with no index greatly diminishes its worth as a research tool. That being said, however . . .
George W. Belles’ prayers have been answered, he lived to see the end of the war, and after nearly one hundred fifty years, his letters and diaries have survived as well. They are a fascinating look that the Civil War through the eyes of a soldier who fought it, and thanks to Mr. Bardnell, they have been preserved.
ISBN 978-0557064182, lulu.com, © 2009, Trade Paperback, 250 pages, Photographs, Maps, Glossary, Bibliography. $19.95.
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