Tuesday, January 8, 2008

"The Soldier's Pen" - Part I - The Book Review

I had the privilege of receiving a copy of Robert E. Bonner's The Soldier's Pen: Firsthand Impressions of the Civil War (hardcover, Hill and Wang, 2006; softcover, Hill and Wang, 2007) to review for On Point: The Journal of Army History (Army Historical Foundation). Having finished it in the past few days, I wanted to offer a few of my own "firsthand impressions":

In general, my review of the book is very positive. Bonner has given us an accomplishment here in terms of accessibility, relevance, and interpretation:

In terms of accessibility, he has provided the Civil War reader and scholar with previously unpublished letters, diary entries, and artwork from thirteen Union and Confederate soldiers from both the eastern and western theaters, held in the Gilder Lehman Collection.

In terms of relevance, Bonner's selections dispel any modern conceit we might have that soldiers in the Civil War weren't as funny, clever, cynical, disgusted, romantic, etc., as we are in our communications. Whether commenting on "War Republicans," "Peace Democrats," presidential elections, wartime suffering of civilians, etc., the reader will have a sense that "we have been there before" when thinking of our present situation.

In terms of interpretation, Bonner expertly and sensitively weaves the letters, diaries, and artwork into the larger context of the Civil War.

The reproduction of drawings from an anonymous soldier's sketchpad is worth the price of the book. If not as talented, this soldier's drawings of the vagaries of soldier life are every bit as comical and insightful as Bill Mauldin's famous "Willie and Joe" cartoons from WWII. His lampooning of the northen press's enthusiastic (and exaggerated) coverage of the taking of a Confederate outhouse deserves to be a classic.

The book does have two major flaws: the most glaring of these is the lack of an index. Want to know what soldiers thought of McClellan? of Lincoln? of food? of homeguards? of African-American soldiers? You'll have to read the book and hunt for it yourself. The other major flaw is the lack of any substantial bibliography other than detailed catalog records from the G-L Collection. In this matter, it fails a launching point for further research by an interested reader. Others may not be satisfied at Bonner's assertions as statements of fact on points for which there may be disagreement among scholars.

What makes this book is the contents, though: the letters, diary entries, and artwork from these soldiers deserve a wide audience - especially for those of us interested in "bottom up" history - and in this, Bonner has done us a great favor

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