Tuesday, October 20, 2009

"ALL QUIET ON THE YAMHILL": A Civil War in the Far West classic

When the Civil War led the federal government to recall the regular army units patrolling the frontier, California volunteers picked up much of the slack up and down the Pacific coast and into the mountain west. Corporal Royal A. Bensell (Company D, 4th California Volunteer Infantry) was one of these men. His daily journal, beginning in March 1862 and ending in October 1864, relates his often frustrating experiences in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. His company garrisoned Fort Yamhill, a post situated along the banks of the Yamhill River approximately 25 miles west of Salem, as well as Fort Hoskins and the blockhouse at Siletz. All of these facilities were established in the mid-1850s to police the local Indian tribes, and during the Civil War came under the administrative umbrella of the District of Oregon.

In 1959, University of Oregon Press published Bensell's diary, ably edited by then graduate student Gunter Barth, under the title All Quiet on the Yamhill: The Civil War in Oregon (cover art upper left). In 2001, UO Press came out with a paperback reprint (cover at right) but the first edition remains fairly plentiful on the secondary market. Barth contributed a Preface, extensive footnotes, a large detailed pullout map of the region, and four useful appendices [I-a summary of the local Indian population, II-a biographical sketch for Bensell, III-a short history of four Cascade forts, and IV-a Company D roster], and an index. Barth really did fine work with his explanatory notes, which were often comprised of detailed background information into persons, places, and events. The pull out map very helpfully locates the many place names mentioned in the journal, and also carefully traces the paths of Cpl. Bensell's trips up and down the coast.

Ostensibly there to contain any flare up of Indian or Copperhead troubles, Bensell's company instead experienced no battles and near endless boredom. The writer penned his journal with a view to posterity, and his unromanticized and unexaggerated account of his service is indeed a valuable day-to-day record of events in a typical Far West frontier fort during the Civil War. The quality editorship of Barth's (the equal of anything produced today by the current standards of scholarship) and the journal itself combine for a unique work well worthy of consideration as a Civil War classic.

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