Civil War Book Review: The Bravest of the Brave: The Correspondence of Stephen Dodson Ramseur

The Bravest of the Brave: The Correspondence of Stephen Dodson Ramseur
George G. Kundahl (Editor)

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 392 pages
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press (May 15, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0807833738
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807833735

The Bravest of the Brave: The Correspondnce of Stephen Dodson RamseurStephen Dodson Ramseur was the youngest major general in the Confederate Army. An 1860 graduate of West Point, he was a major general in 1864, one day after his twenty-seventh birthday.  Very intelligent, perceptive, hard working and likable he is the type of person “destined for success”.  Ramseur is a private individual, somewhat reserved, religious with very strong ideas.  In many ways, he is the prototype of the young Southern male that forms the backbone of the CSA.  Over and above his military accomplishments, he left a series of letters to his wife, family and best friend.  Douglas Southall Freeman characterized the letter as “a large fine collection”.  Historians have used this collection to gain understanding of the workings of the Army of Northern Virginia and Confederate politics.  By publishing these letters, UNC Press and the editor gives the public access to this collection.

The book works on several levels.

It gives us an intimate look at the life of upper class in the South.  The Ramseur family had money for most of his youth.  This paid for a comfortable life and college.  It gave them the position that could make entrance to West Point possible.  His father lost his business wiping out the family fortune.  When this happened, we see how an extended family works together to preserve and protect its’ members.  Ramseur is a cadet during this time and considered leaving the military upon graduation to work as an engineer.  There is a discussion of employment and salaries available to graduates.

We see the process of courtship and marriage through his letters to the woman who became his wife.  I felt like a “peeping tom” on more than one occasion reading these letters.  They are a very revealing look at the dynamics of their marriage and the expectations men have of their wives.  Ramseur is married about a year when killed in battle, having just learned of a daughter’s birth.  These letters are personal, intimate and revealing.

The letter to his closest male friend, give us entrance into the nineteen-century world of male bonding.  Expressions of friendship are very different from our world.  In these letters, there is a frank discussion of business, politics, hopes and disappointments.  The reader sees a different business and social environment and how much things have changed.  The discussion of politics and secession are frank and full of the South’s grievances.

Letters to his general family, illustrate how important and necessary extended families are at this time.  With no government safety net, family is everything.  Ramseur, his parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins are a constant support system.  At the same time, they push him to be a better person, work harder and be a success.

And there is the war.  The war is the subject or a constant in all letters after 1861.  We follow him from application for a military commission to death.  An intelligent man, he provides perceptive looks at a number of well-known people.  He writes about army politics, problems, battles and camps.  As the war progresses, we see how the CSA is falling apart.  Many of his letters hold surprising views on military service, the draft and his government.

These were letter written to specific people that he did not expect to share them.  As such, he writes freely reveling himself and his feelings.  This gives us entry into another world on a personal level that can feel like eavesdropping.  This is a most enjoyable, illuminating and well worth reading book.


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