Book Review: The Diary of Cyrus Comstock

by Dan O'Connell on August 13, 2012 · 0 comments

Book Review: The Diary of Cyrus B. Comstock; compiled and edited by Merlin E. Sumner, Morningside House Inc., 1987

My original interest in this book was spurred by my never ending search for information on engineer operations during the Civil War. Cyrus Comstock was a very influential staff engineer and aide for U.S. Grant during the Vicksburg and Overland campaigns. Unfortunately this purpose was only partially fulfilled. For an unknown reason entries for most of 1862-1863 are missing. What I did discover however was a thoroughly enjoyable recounting of his West Point years and revealing observations concerning the Overland Campaign.

The real value of his West Point entries is the description of cadet life; a mixture of fear, excitement, tedium and for him intellectual and physical challenge. The truly interesting part about this time is the interaction between the cadets, instructors, and administrators of the academy, nearly all of whom would see service in the Civil War. Many would die fighting for the Union and Confederate armies. The editor does an excellent job of inserting biographical details and the eventual fates of some of these key players. I must admit that as a former soldier I found some satisfaction in the story of “Beauty” (J.E.B.) Stuart, a well-known favorite of R.E. Lee (the Superintendent of the Military Academy 1852-1855), getting knocked on his butt by a fellow cadet for being a prima donna. In my day we called them “cheese eaters.”

Comstock seems to be the most unlikely candidate for military service. He mentions that he finds writing that portray hidden and unexpressed feeling beautiful. His own writings tell us much about him that he probably did not intend. He was supremely confident in his academic abilities and was an intellectual perfectionist. He desperately wanted to finish first in his class. He was also very physically insecure, by his own admission does poorly at any task that requires physical participation. He was also disdainful of social graces, although he did sign for dance lessons because he understood the value of the skill in the advancement process. He essentially kept to himself and made few friends choosing instead to avoid mingling with his classmates. He spent nearly all his time in the library. It was academics that drove him. His proclaimed goal was not to lead troops but – “engineering and a professorship”.

His class standing (1st in the class of 1855) granted him his first goal with a coveted appointment to the Corps of Engineers. Comstock looked briefly into an opportunity teaching at school in Louisiana but the war intervened and his resignation was put on hold. The best I can determine from the material presented is the only soldiers actually ever under his direct command was 16 members of the Engineer Company that he took to Washington to join the rest of the company already there. The remainder of his military was served in positions that best suited his skill set perfectly; as a staff engineer or adjutant. These roles took him to almost every theater and he played a part in many of the key campaigns and operations of the war.

The book concludes with several brief chapters (again the editor does excellent work removing mundane entries) concerning Comstock’s post war activities under the Grant administration. There is a particularly delightful chapter describing a journey to the western frontier to inspect posts there. While ultimately defeated in my original purpose for purchasing this book I was treated to a captivating and thoroughly interesting story of one man’s journey through life during this turbulent time.

 


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