Thursday, March 27, 2014

Christ, ed.: "'THIS DAY WE MARCHED AGAIN': A Union Soldier's Account of War in Arkansas and the Trans-Mississippi"

["This Day We Marched Again": A Union Soldier's Account of War in Arkansas and the Trans-Mississippi edited by Mark K. Christ (Butler Center Books, 2014). Softcover, 2 maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. 157 Pp. ISBN:978-1-935106-67-8 $19.95]

German immigrant Jacob Haas enlisted in the 9th Wisconsin in September 1861 and served in the Trans-Mississippi for the entirety of the war, marching and fighting across Kansas, Indian Territory, Arkansas and Missouri. In his native language, he documented his observations and experiences from beginning to end, combining his diaries into a single manuscript after the war. In the early twentieth century, his son-in-law translated the work into English, and it remained in the possession of the family until published this month by the book arm of the Butler Center of Arkansas Studies under the title "This Day We Marched Again": A Union Soldier's Account of War in Arkansas and the Trans-Mississippi.

Civil War Arkansas related participant accounts seeking editors can do no better than getting Mark Christ on board. Christ, the longtime Arkansas Historic Presentation Program outreach director, has contributed to and edited a number of important publications, and this previously unpublished material is certainly worthy of his talents. During the postwar combining of his diaries, it's clear that Haas inserted facts he could not have known at the time of first writing so some degree of self editing was performed. The diary manuscript that emerged from three levels of handling over many decades -- original writing, combining/editing, and translation -- is not a paragon of American English syntax and spelling, even with Christ's corrections. Haas managed to misspell the name of nearly every military officer he encountered, but Christ's decision to retain Haas's ubiquitous proper noun errors as useful cultural artifact, reserving the corrective for the footnotes, seems the right one. As all good editors do, Christ in his notes substantially expands the reader's knowledge and understanding of persons, places and events mentioned in the diary text, but he also goes the extra mile in using other unpublished writings from the regiment (the most useful of these being the diaries of Hermann Schlueter and Michael Zimmer) to validate Haas's claims and interpretations.

The value of particular Civil War letter and diary collections to researchers is often exaggerated but this is not the case with Haas's historical contribution. What his writing lacks in polish and style it more than makes up for in content, though rather narrowly focused on military affairs.  The attitude that emerges from his diary seems generally indifferent to the widespread abuse of civilians and their property, and he doesn't reflect much upon national political issues or the social upheavals that the war induced (such as the ending of slavery and fighting alongside black soldiers).  On a somewhat lighter note, his record of the violent dislike that boiled up between the officers and men of the 9th Wisconsin and the 1st Nebraska may be one of the earliest indications of what would in the future become a great Midwestern rivalry.

As mentioned above, in contrast with the scant attention paid to issues of politics and society, Haas's writings on the military actions and duties of his regiment are highly observant, their level of detail far exceeding the typical Civil War enlisted man, or even officer, diary. Vivid descriptions of the character and layout of occupied towns like Rolla, Missouri and Camden, Arkansas are presented, and rural points of interest located along routes of march dutifully noted. Even when major battles were missed (ex. the regiment spent Prairie Grove guarding Rhea's Mill), Haas's faithful recounting of his regiment's supporting activities augment our knowledge of these campaigns. His Newtonia material is not historical gold, but the series of diary entries covering the long march of the Arkansas wing of the 1864 Red River Campaign and frequent small scale fighting that occurred along the road to Camden comprise a rare gem for researchers seeking primary source information for that period. Fortunately for Haas, he and his unit missed the Marks' Mills and Poison Spring debacles, but his diary's in-depth observations of the occupation of Camden and the later battle of Jenkins' Ferry admirably pick up the slack. Upon returning to Little Rock, severe illness required sick leave for Haas, followed by discharge from the army in December 1864.

With almost every aspect of the book being worthy of high praise, the only real source of complaint is with the maps. Evidently present to pinpoint for the reader key locations from Haas's diary, they are shrunken to the extent of near total illegibility; but that negative vibe is only transitory. Publication of Trans-Mississippi soldier diaries are rare events and "This Day We Marched Again" is one of the best to emerge in recent years. All students of the Civil War west of the Mississippi should obtain a copy for their home library. Those with a special interest in the immigrant soldier experience will also find Haas's diary to be a great source of first-hand information and perspective.

4 comments:

  1. Looks like I'll have to put this on my list.

    Mike Peters

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Drew:

    Are there any comments on commanding officers, especially the Salomon brothers?

    Stefan

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Stefan,
      I don't recall him making pointed comments about commanding officers, but it's been over a month since I read it. I did glance through the index for you for the Salomons. He does mention them in several places, but only in passing.

      Delete

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