Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Wilson, ed.: "FROM WESTERN DESERTS TO CAROLINA SWAMPS: A Civil War Soldier's Journals and Letters Home"

[ From Western Deserts to Carolina Swamps: A Civil War Soldier's Journals and Letters Home edited by John P. Wilson (University of New Mexico Press, 2012). Cloth, 10 maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. 292 pp. ISBN:978-0-8263-5142-5 $40 ]

In 1858, with continuing Utah troubles leading the army to solicit recruits, Adams County, Illinois native Lewis Roe enlisted in the 7th Infantry. His antebellum regular army and later Civil War diaries and letters are the subject of John P. Wilson's From Western Deserts to Carolina Swamps. With a year of Knox College under his belt, Roe was a literate soldier whose writings became more illustrative with his second stint in the military, this time as a Union volunteer infantryman with the 50th Illinois.  The material is significantly enhanced by Wilson's editing, the depth of which frequently goes above and beyond what one typically finds in works of this type. 

As Wilson notes, Roe's daily diary of his regiment's 1860 march, a long and arduous one from Colorado to Fort Fillmore in New Mexico, is an unusual find. Observations and details are relatively sparse here, with typical entries noting camp locations, brief descriptions of the natural landscape, and distances traversed. In addition to analyzing the two versions of Roe's 1860 journal, Wilson also went some way in confirming the route with his own travels to the sites (with photos). Roe was fortunate in that his own company was not among those surrendered at San Augustin Springs, an early war disaster that brought disgrace to the regiment's immediate commander Major Isaac Lynde. Roe mustered out of the army in 1863 at the end of his enlistment term, and returned to Illinois, where he married and worked for some time as a teacher.

He did not stay out of the army long, however, as the desire to serve (and the healthy bounty offered) led him to join the 50th Illinois as a veteran volunteer. His diary and letters for this period cover aspects of the Atlanta Campaign, the March to the Sea, and the Carolinas Campaign. In Georgia, some of the more obscure encounters of the campaign, such as those at Lay's Ferry and Rome Crossroads, are usefully described, but Roe spent much of the season garrisoning the town of Rome. His diary's recounting of almost daily guerrilla attacks on the picket lines and foraging expeditions provides a particularly enlightening picture of the atmosphere behind the front lines in NW Georgia during this period. With the Confederate Army of Tennessee returning to the area after the fall of Atlanta, the 50th was also rushed to the defense of Allatoona Pass. Roe offers worthwhile insights into that battle.

As mentioned before, Roe's descriptive powers were at their height in his later writings, and his journal of the march through the Carolinas is especially vivid. I don't recall mention elsewhere in the literature of the massive forest fires deliberately set by the army to the destroy the naval stores economy so particular to the region. A good account of Bentonville by the private soldier is another highlight from this final period.

One of the best features of Wilson's editing is his lengthy and exceptionally meticulous contextual narrative that weaves its way through the entire book.  Wilson's account of how the Roe papers came into print is extensive, and what the material covers (and what gaps exist) are thoroughly explained up front. In addition to bridging temporal gaps in Roe's writings, these chapters also provide very useful background information and scholarly references to events described by Roe. Wilson also includes other supplemental material like Roe's National Tribune article dealing with the Battle of Valverde. The maps are a mix of original drawings and those reproduced from the O.R. atlas, and they do a good overall job of locating points mentioned in the text and tracing long marches. Wilson also did a fine job of selecting rarely seen photographs and illustrations for the volume.

As a recorder of historical events, Roe was certainly better than average.  Researchers seeking primary source material for the regular army in the Far West at the the outbreak of the war and for the 1864-65 marches and fighting through Georgia and the Carolinas would do well to obtain a copy of this beautifully presented and exquisitely edited book.

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