by Elliott W. Hoffman (Editor)
- Hardcover: 544 pages
- Publisher: Schroeder Publications (December 3, 2007)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1889246514
- ISBN-13: 978-1889246512
A good Civil War history always includes some human-interest elements. Some histories will have a chapter on what happened to the men mentioned after the war. This is an attempt to get past the organizational elements and make history the story of men. No matter how hard an author tries, Civil War history is about armies, corps, divisions, brigades and regiments in camp, on the march or in battle. This is not to say that authors are doing badly but that it is the nature of things and what readers expect. Biographies can include more human-interest elements but in the end, battles are most important. We tend to lose the men in Blue, Gray & Butternut as we read about them in camp, on the march or in battle. They are that faceless group we ride past on our way an important meeting.
This book puts a human face on one of those men! Unlike a biography, William Wells tells us his story as it unfolds in letters written from the front. This is a very personal book reveling and concealing his experiences and feelings during the war. In one way it is history but in another it is eavesdropping. Wells enlisted in a Vermont Cavalry Regiment, serving through the war in the East, one of eight men to enlist as a private and discharged as a Brevet Major General. Along the way, he meets and courts Anna Richardson. Her letters are included forming a look into the courtship rituals of the 1860s among upper middle class Americans.
William Wells saw active service in the cavalry during the war. Mosby’s men captured him and he was at Libby prison. He charged with Farnsworth at Gettysburg, was on the Dahlgren Raid and fought under Sheridan in The Valley. Along the way, he was involved in regimental politics, suffered ill health and recorded his experiences in letters home. He won the Medal of Honor for his conduct in the Farnsworth Charge and has a monument at Gettysburg. He missed other major battles being on detached service or because the regiment was station elsewhere. The book brings home the nature of army service and what the “right place at the right time” means.
Letters during this time were public documents. The writer expected them to be read by others and possibly published in the local newspaper. The times had a very strict code of conduct that few were willing to violate. In addition, Wells wanted to reassure his Mother and Grandmother that all was well. His letters lack graphic descriptions of battle, are full of “I am well”, “good food” and news of the men from the area. This reminded of the letters I wrote in Viet Nam to my family and provided a special link to Wells. This shared experience gives me an extra understanding of what he was and was not saying.
Elliott Hoffman has done a fine job editing the letters. His text links the letters and gives us the story that the letters do not. He steps in at the right time to provide a solid continuing story without bogging down in trivial items. His handling of the courtship is deft and sure, giving a real look into a developing love between William and Anna. This is an expensive book and is not a “must have” for your library. However, the book will add to your understanding and appreciation of the men and women who fought the war. After reading this book, the next time I am at Gettysburg I will find the William Wells monument and have a real understanding and affection for the man.
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