[Two Civil Wars: The Curious Shared Journal of a Baton Rouge Schoolgirl and a Union Sailor on the USS Essex edited by Katherine Bentley Jeffrey (Louisiana State University Press, 2016). Hardcover, 2 maps, photos, appendices, footnotes, bibliography, index. 296 pp. ISBN:978-0-8071-6224-8. $38]
Two Civil Wars is the product of the chance discovery of an intriguing double journal containing the writings of Baton Rouge Catholic schoolgirl Celeste Repp and USS Essex Quarter Gunner William L. Park (a bizarre pairing, for sure). Independent scholar Katherine Bentley Jeffrey was approached by the owners (indirect ancestors of Park) of this unusual artifact, and the fortuitous event was the beginning of twenty-five years of historical investigation.
The 1859-1861 journal of Celeste Repp comprises only a fraction of the book's total content but the meticulousness of Jeffrey's detective work really shines through in her generous volume of supporting material. The journal itself is basically just a few French language exercises (also translated into English in the book), three poems, a very brief letter to a favorite instructor (Father Hubert), and an even shorter single journal entry regarding a visit to the Louisiana State Fair. Little of Repp's background, personality, and character can be uncovered in such brief fragments of her writing, but Jeffrey's deeply researched introduction provides much in the way of Repp family history and connections, as well as informative biographical sketches of both the aforementioned Father Hubert and Matilda Victor, the latter the proprietor of Repp's Catholic school (St. Mary's). These sections offer interesting, and often striking, glimpses into formal Catholic education in the Deep South [its institutions not always accepted by Protestant neighbors (at one point, Fr. Hubert was even shot in the arm by an unknown assailant)], as well as French and German immigrant experiences and culture in Louisiana. Jeffrey's notes are well researched, often fascinatingly discursive and expansively detailed, offering much in the way of biographical sketches of persons, and also historical background material regarding places and events, mentioned in the journal.
Jeffrey also presents to the reader reasonable conjectures regarding two of the combined journal's oddities. The first, just how the journal of a Louisiana schoolgirl wound up in the hands of a sailor aboard the ironclad Essex, can be imagined from contemplating the common fate of personal belongings of civilians located all across the occupied South. The St. Mary's school building was used as a Union hospital after Baton Rouge was captured. Park himself was not a patient there, but he had shipmates who were, and it isn't difficult to imagine that one of them pilfered a mostly blank journal book, one that eventually wound up in the hands of a shipboard acquaintance seeking a way to preserve his own war story on paper. The second question pertains to the time discrepancy in Park's journal (his entries begin at dates far preceding a time when he could possibly have acquired the writing book), but that could be simply explained by the copying of previously written material into a new journal (a not uncommon practice among Civil War diarists). According to Jeffrey, how much later this was done (during or after the war) is impossible to tell.
In terms of both length and historiographical value, the 1861-64 journal of William L. Park easily surpasses Repp's. Civil War rank and file fighting men liked to write about very different things. Many surviving journals and letters dwell primarily upon family and friends, homesickness, the weather, surrounding nature, or camp life in the field (or on the water) with their comrades, but others (a much rarer group) are composed in the main of keen observations of military events. Park's naval chronicle definitely occupies a place in this latter category. In addition to numerous ship vs. shore and ship vs. ship engagements, he also writes about minesweeping and counter-guerrilla actions. The regularity by which Park notes the Essex picking up freedom-seeking escaped slaves for interrogation attests to their intelligence value to the fleet. All of this extremely dedicated 'shop talk' is lightened, however, with the occasional personal anecdote told with an appealing dry wit.
In his journal, Park recounts his shipboard experience of many of the most important campaigns fought along the western theater's inland waterways. In addition to the Essex, he also briefly served on the crew of the Pittsburg. Park was witness to the fall of Island No. 10, the captures of forts Henry and Donelson, and the destruction of the CSS Arkansas, but the most extensive event coverage in his journal relates to the long naval phase of the Port Hudson campaign. The Essex frequently bombarded the Confederate fortress in support of the land siege operation. As at Vicksburg, naval gunners were to establish siege batteries on land at Port Hudson, but the Confederates surrendered before Park himself made it ashore. After the siege ended, the Essex patrolled the Mississippi through the rest of the year. Its involvement in the doomed Red River Campaign early the following year was limited to picketing the lower Red. This was fortunate for Park personally but not so much for today's readers and historians, who would have greatly benefited from his dispassionate and keen observational abilities. The entries end in July 1864 with Park's mustering out of the service. Clearly meriting publication, this naval journal is a great primary resource for those studying the gunboat war fought along the lower Mississippi.
As before with her handling of the writings of Celeste Repp, Jeffrey's expansive primary and secondary source research in this section adds greatly to the value of the Park journal. The book's bibliography is more impressive than most original monographs, and one can recognize the editor's skilled source selection and interpretation in the explanatory footnotes. One of Jeffrey's most useful finds was another unpublished Essex journal (James Henneberry's), its helpful complementary nature to Park's writing well borne out in the notes. Union 'Brown Water Navy' crewman diaries and journals are rare, and Park's (also apparently the first Essex journal to be published) should occupy a prominent new place in this group.
The afterword explores the post-war lives of the book's main 'characters' — Repp, Victor, Hubert, and Park — with the same attention to detail. In the appendix section, other documents (ex. speeches, reports, correspondence) incorporated by Park into his journal are reproduced in full, and Jeffrey also includes a brief comparative study of the Park 'abstract journal' and later 'amplified memoir'.
For all of the reasons mentioned above, Two Civil Wars is highly recommended reading, drawing in individuals with interests seemingly as divergent as the Deep South Catholic experience in the antebellum period and Civil War ironclad warfare along the main waterways and byways of the lower Mississippi River Valley. If a yearly book award for Civil War manuscript editing exists, Katherine Bentley Jeffrey richly deserves to be on its short list of candidates.
More CWBA reviews of LSUP titles:
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* Corps Commanders in Blue: Union Major Generals in the Civil War
* Gateway to the Confederacy: New Perspectives on the Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaigns, 1862-1863
* Emancipation, the Union Army, and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln
* Greyhound Commander: Confederate General John G. Walker's History of the Civil War West of the Mississippi
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* Battle of Stones River: The Forgotten Conflict Between the Confederate Army of Tennessee and the Union Army of the Cumberland
* Granbury's Texas Brigade: Diehard Western Confederates
* The Last Battle of the Civil War: United States Versus Lee, 1861-1883
* Confederate Guerrilla: Champ Ferguson and the Civil War in Appalachia
* Lincoln and Citizens' Rights in Civil War Missouri: Balancing Freedom and Security
* War No More: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature, 1861-1914
* Isham G. Harris of Tennessee: Confederate Governor and United States Senator
* Executing Daniel Bright: Race, Loyalty, and Guerrilla Violence in a Coastal Carolina Community 1861-1865
* Mosquito Soldiers: Malaria, Yellow Fever, and the Course of the American Civil War
* Homegrown Yankees: Tennessee's Union Cavalry in the Civil War
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* A Wisconsin Yankee in the Confederate Bayou Country: The Civil War Reminiscences of a Union General
* Bleeding Borders: Race, Gender, and Violence in Pre-Civil War Kansas
* Jefferson Davis and the Civil War Era
* Where Men Only Dare to Go Or the Story of a Boy Company, C.S.A.
* Encyclopedia of Civil War Shipwrecks
* Walker’s Texas Division, C.S.A.: Greyhounds of the Trans-Mississippi
* The Confederate Cherokees: John Drew's Regiment of Mounted Rifles
* A Crisis In Confederate Command: Edmund Kirby Smith, Richard Taylor, And The Army Of The Trans-Mississippi
* The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock