Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Review of Wyckoff, ed. - "THE CIVIL WAR LETTERS OF ALEXANDER MCNEILL, 2ND SOUTH CAROLINA INFANTRY REGIMENT"

[The Civil War Letters of Alexander McNeill, 2nd South Carolina Infantry Regiment edited by Mac Wyckoff, transcribed by Cora Lee Godsey Starling (University of South Carolina Press, 2016). Cloth, notes, bibliography, index. 686 pp. ISBN:978-1-61117-536-3. $39.99]

Alexander "Sandy" McNeill was born in Phoenix, South Carolina (at the time, part of the Abbeville District) on October 23, 1832. He was a merchant before enlisting in the Confederate army as a private in the Secession Guards, later designated Company F of the 2nd South Carolina infantry regiment (one of the core units of the Kershaw Brigade). Surviving a serious wound received late in the war, McNeill was an eyewitness to the conflict from beginning to end. His wartime letters to friend and future spouse Almirah Haseltine "Tinie" Simmons from April 17, 1861 to May 2, 1865 are collected in The Civil War Letters of Alexander McNeill, 2nd South Carolina Infantry Regiment. The volume is remarkable on a number of fronts, not least of which is the sheer number of letters involved, which together fill nearly 600 pages. Editor Mac Wyckoff regards the McNeill letters as the "largest and best" collection he has ever encountered in his over three decades of primary documentary research.

As a frequent reader of Civil War edited correspondence, it is easy to feel more than a bit jaded toward the prospect of reading yet another set of letters filled with observations about officers, regimental politics, picket duty, skirmishes, battles, marches, national politics, religion, camp life, weather, the natural environment, illness, morale, and food, to go along with regular inquiries about friends, family, and general home front goings on. McNeill comments on all of these matters and more, but what really set his letters apart from the pack are their literate quality, consistent lengthiness, frequent depth of detail offered, and general persistence of those characteristics all the way through the entire war-spanning correspondence run. It is also worthy of mention that, of the other 170 men who eventually served in Company F, McNeill specifically mentions 90 of them by name at least once in his letters. In another helpful nod to future researchers and genealogical enthusiasts, he also sends Tinie descriptive lists of the company's casualties after each major engagement.

A large number of the early war period letters are dominated by McNeill's repeated declarations of love toward his friend (and ardently wished for future spouse) Tinie and his anxious hope for reciprocal feelings on her part. She was a widow who inherited a substantial estate from her first husband, and legal concerns over its stewardship (after Sandy and Tinie were married) also dominate a long string of letters.

For the Bull Run Campaign, McNeill writes much about the construction of his brigade's defensive lines but very little about the battle itself. In the interlude between First Bull Run and the Peninsula Campaign, he describes many actions that occurred along the picket lines in northern Virginia, as well as the devastating effects of disease upon the new soldiers. Unfortunately, a long October 1861 to August 1862 gap (with the resumption of regular letter writing from his hospital bed) meant that no Peninsula/Seven Days, Second Bull Run, or Antietam letters survived. On a related note, it was a bit surprising to learn that convalescent soldiers returning to the front were collected in a Richmond prison (McNeill was more bemused about this than offended) before being forwarded to the army in a large group. McNeill also married Tinie during the "lost" time.

Similar to before, for the Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville campaign and battle periods there is more information in the letters on picket actions, marches, and camp life than observational details about the main fighting. Though often expressing his enthusiastic support for South Carolina's slave society and Confederate fortunes at large, McNeill must have felt somewhat disillusioned with the war by its mid-point as he mentions on more than one occasion his desire to obtain a substitute and become a sutler. You don't see that very often in soldier letters, however, such thoughts seemed to have been banished from his mind after his election to lieutenant in 1863.

For those seeking more in the way of on-the-ground battle perspectives, the trend of McNeill not writing much about the actual fighting changes for the better with Gettysburg, as numerous letters extensively describe his observations of the march to Gettysburg, the battle itself, and the retreat. His letters are highly critical of the generalship displayed in the battle and also regard as wasteful folly the idea of Confederate armies conducting strategic offensives into the North.

Later letters describe McNeill's trip with James Longstreet's First Corps to North Georgia, the Chickamauga battle, and the Knoxville Campaign. He didn't write much about the Wilderness battle and a terrible wound suffered at Spotsylvania in May 1864 meant that few Overland Campaign details would be forthcoming. McNeill recovered and rejoined the army in August, his division augmenting Jubal Early's small army in the Shenandoah Valley. At the conclusion of that campaign, McNeill and his unit returned to the siege lines around Richmond.

In early 1865, Kershaw's Brigade returned home to South Carolina to oppose Sherman's march north. During that time, McNeill's letters maintained both their high frequency and voluminousness. Events from a number of skirmishes and battles fought in the Carolinas are recounted in the 1865 letters, but worries about home, the consequences of defeat, and dimming prospects for the future wore heavily on McNeill's mind, and he unburdened himself at length to Tinie on those issues, as well.

As his unit continually retreated before Sherman's seemingly invincible host, McNeill's expressed views on the war understandably became increasingly despondent in nature. He rightly predicted the futility of compromise peace feelers when the Confederacy's military position was already teetering toward total collapse. He countenanced with only extreme reluctance desperate Confederate proposals to arm slaves (opposing the concept on both practical and ideological grounds) or disperse the remaining armies into the brush. As Wyckoff notes, McNeill's long and very thoughtful letters written during the final months of the war have an added significance given the general decline in available Confederate firsthand source material over that period.

Wyckoff is an expert on Kershaw's Brigade, having also published regimental studies of the 2nd and 3rd South Carolina, and his own editorial contributions to the book are significant. His volume and chapter introductions provide valuable historical context, and his endnotes convey useful added information about individuals, events, and places mentioned in the letters. The important roles McNeill descendants played in preserving and transcribing the letters are also properly recognized. The McNeill letters truly are exceptional, and hats off to editor and press for not only their scholarly presentation of the collection but also for publishing the material in full.


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