Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Barnes, ed. by Shannon: "CAMPAIGNS OF THE 20TH IOWA INFANTRY: With Personal Reminiscences of the War"

Campaigns of the 20th Iowa Infantry: With Personal Reminiscences of the War by J. D. Barnes, edited by M. Lawrence Shannon (Camp Pope Publishing, 2016). Softcover, illustrations, notes, bibliography, Company K roster, index. 356 pp. ISBN:978-1-929919-70-3. $20]

Campaigns of the 20th Iowa Infantry
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Between January 1, 1887 and March 11, 1888, Civil War veteran Joseph Danforth Barnes of Company K, 20th Iowa Volunteer Infantry contributed 66 separate articles about his Civil War experiences to an Illinois newspaper, the Port Byron Globe. These articles are compiled in Campaigns of the 20th Iowa Infantry: With Personal Reminiscences of the War and edited by M. Lawrence Shannon. Unfortunately, Mr. Shannon passed away before publication, but his wife, Pauline, stepped in to complete the project. Even though written two decades after the war ended, Barnes's newspaper recollections of the 20th's Civil War service, and his own personal role in the war, are valuable documents. The 66 articles fill almost 300 pages of text in the book, so there's a great deal of detail in them regarding comrades and their fates, personal encounters with major historical personages, campaign and battle vignettes, and more.

In terms of campaign descriptions, the most impressive collection of articles is related to the writer's firsthand knowledge of the 1862 Prairie Grove Campaign (including the Van Buren Raid that followed it). In addition to relating details of the battle itself, Barnes spends a great deal of time on the plight of the wounded during the battle's immediate aftermath. He also offers an interesting perspective on what it was like on the far left flank of the Vicksburg siege lines (the quietest sector, and thus the least written about in most general histories). His account of the 1863 Rio Grande Expedition should also be of great interest to students of the Civil War in the Trans-Mississippi, especially the parts regarding garrison duty on Mustang Island (the writer's self-described most pleasant wartime interlude) and events from the war along the U.S.-Mexican border near Brownsville. The book's account of the final assaults on the forts guarding Mobile in 1865 is worthwhile reading, as well.

Barnes claimed to have written his memoirs from memory, but it's readily apparent to the reader that, given the volume of intricate battle details (like who fell and where) contained in the articles, he must have used notes. He also consulted other sources. For instance, the Prairie Grove sections include not only the memoir of Barnes but also official reports and a lengthy account written by one of General Herron's staff officers [this officer is unfortunately unnamed, and the notes do not offer any additional information]. While his point of view is valuable, Barnes does often engage in the typical rhetoric of soldiers, exaggerating victory and massively overestimating enemy numbers and losses while minimizing those of his own side.

There's definitely a strong vein of seriousness coursing through the recollections of Barnes, but the writer also strove to entertain. Early on, he tells of an encounter with "Wild Bill" Hickok and relates a tall-tale of Bill's that's clearly dime novel material. Barnes also apparently was a believer in the mythology of Rebel officers plying their men with black powder and whiskey before a fight. But there are many other camp anecdotes that do ring true, though, as with many Civil War memoirs, there are also factual errors and faulty interpretations sprinkled around. With rare exception, Shannon allows the writing to speak for itself in the book, with few editorial interventions of any kind. There are only 29 endnotes in total for the entire article collection.

Midway through the book, Barnes interrupts his 20th Iowa series of writings to discuss the service histories of other Hawkeye units like the 2nd Iowa regiments of infantry and cavalry. Those sections merit less attention as the information provided is secondhand and the articles are mostly just campaign overview narratives (from both Union and Confederate perspectives). But, in the latter stages, Barnes returns to his own unit with a bang (literally). His detailed personal account of the catastrophic May 25, 1865 explosion of the main ordnance magazine in Mobile is fascinating. As the 20th was mustering out of service, Barnes was rewarded with a promotion to first lieutenant.

Those that enjoy reading lively Civil War reminiscences penned by rank and file soldiers will certainly get one from J.D. Barnes. There's a wider interest level involved to be sure, but students of the Trans-Mississippi theater (particularly the war in Arkansas and Texas) will probably get the most out of Campaigns of the 20th Iowa Infantry.

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