Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Unpacking your toolbox (historically speaking)

This is the second part of a series on writing regimental/brigade histories, and this post is all about what you need to have in your "toolbox." Many writers have used this phrase in their discussions of the craft. When I teach writing workshops, I recommend people pick up a copy of Stephen King's On Writing. It is an autobiographical account of his writing life, along with steps and tools that he uses in crafting his books. And, On Writing is funny!

In the world of literary criticism, scholars spend a great deal of time studying about just whom an author reads. Why? Because what we read has a great deal of influence on the way we write and what we write about. When writing about a regiment, you need to have certain items in that toolbox; these tools will help you to understand the men themselves, and to some degree, how a regiment functioned. The first book on the list:

The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy by Bell Irvin Wiley. Originally released in 1943, this book has not been supplanted by any other work. Different chapters cover the men in camp, in battle, religion, letters home, etc., etc. Back in my younger years, I read this book every year. I actually re-read it last year, prepping for Watauga County, North Carolina, in the Civil War. A regiment is composed of 100 officers and 900 common soldiers, hence the importance of the book. Wiley also wrote The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union, which I also have, but I since I doubt that I will ever write a Union regimental history, we'll stick to the Confederate side. A runner-up to The Life of Johnny Reb would be Soldiers Blue and Gray by James I. Robertson.

As an aside, if you are going to be writing about the Army of Tennessee, I would recommend picking up a copy of Larry J. Daniel's Soldiering the Army of Tennessee.

Military Justice in the Confederate States Armies by Jack A. Bunch might come next on my list. Regiments contain many different facets. There are some good books out there that cover different parts of a regiment. A regiment was regulated by the Articles of War, a series of "military laws" that defined what was expected of a soldier and outlined how he was expected to act.  Bunch's book breaks down the background of military justice, charges, findings, sentencing, and punishments. Bunch published a supplemental volume, an index of men brought up on charges, and what their punishments were. As an aside, a copy of the Regulations for the Army of the Confederate States (1863) is really handy. This was the "bible" that governed day-to-day lives of regiments. This volume has been reproduced several times, so finding an original will not be necessary.

Rebel Watchdog: The Confederate States Army Provost Guard by Kenneth Radley is another piece of the puzzle closely related to Bunch's Military Justice. Radley's volume breaks down the role of the provost, writing about the origins of the provost and his duties, like dealing with passports, stragglers, prisoners, etc. While this book is not geared toward the individual regiment, having this type of material in your toolbox will help you better understand how the soldiers dealt with furloughs, straggling while on the march, etc.

Doctors in Gray: The Confederate Medical Service by H. H. Cunningham is an older book, but still the standard on the medical service (There is also a Doctors in Blue). This book will give you the basics on the medical department, not only on the battlefield, but in camp as well. Along these same lines would be books about hospitals. I would probably recommend Chimborazo: The Confederacy's Largest Hospital by Carol C. Green or maybe Richmond's Wartime Hospitals by Rebecca Barbour Calcutt.

The Story of the Soldiers Wouldn't Tell: Sex in the Civil War by Thomas Lowry deals with the seedier side of soldiering. You will find in some records mentions of soldiers with certain venereal diseases, especially when a regiment was stationed near to a large city. To my knowledge, this is the only book that deals with this topic in (graphic) detail.

Christ in the Camp by J. William Jones deals with those who strove to keep on the straight and narrow. While Christ in the Camp is an older book (1887), could use an index, and is probably not laid out the best, I still find it extremely useful and written by someone involved in trying to bring Christianity to the troops. There are several other books on the role of chaplains, several of which I have read, but none that really jumped out at me. For background, I might recommend God's Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War, but, it is a dense read (I've still not finished it).

The Bloody Crucible of Courage: Fighting Methods and Combat Experience of the Civil War by Brent Nosworthy is just one book that covers fighting during the war. There are several other books in this same genre: Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War by General Linderman and Battle Tactics of the American Civil War by Paddy Griffin are two others that haunt my shelves. I personally like Bloody Crucible of Courage. While soldiers spent a great deal of time in camp, it really was the battlefield that defined them (in my opinion).

More to come in part three.........

1 comment:

Richard Williams said...

A great post Michael and very helpful. Thanks for sharing!