Thursday, March 14, 2013

Dyson, ed.: "A CIVIL WAR CORRESPONDENT IN NEW ORLEANS: The Journals and Reports of Albert Gaius Hills of the Boston Journal"

[A Civil War Correspondent in New Orleans: The Journals and Reports of Albert Gaius Hills of the Boston Journal Albert Gaius Hills, edited by Gary L. Dyson (McFarland ph. 800-253-2187, 2012). Softcover, maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. 204 pp. ISBN:978-0-7864-7193-5 $45]

Albert G. Hills was a young man from Massachusetts who tried a number of occupations in the antebellum period before settling on journalistic endeavors. A Republican, he took a job as a war correspondent for the Boston Journal newspaper, attached to the army-navy expedition targeting New Orleans. After reporting on the fall of the Crescent City in 1862, he partnered in the operation of a new Unionist newspaper in the city, the Era. Hills even joined the army in 1863, commissioned a lieutenant in the 4th Louisiana Native Guards, only serving three months before resigning and returning to his prior vocation.

The three 1861-63 journals that Hills kept comprise the heart of A Civil War Correspondent in New Orleans. Beginning in November 1861, Hill describes the outfitting of the New Orleans expedition and its travels to the Gulf of Mexico. In addition to covering the occupation of Ship Island and the early blockade of the Mississippi River mouth, Hill recounts several side expeditions to the Alabama and Florida coasts. He must have cultivated a vast array of relationships with army and navy officers, as he traveled from the ship to ship (seemingly at will) and was privy to planning at a level disturbing to operational security.

The amount of military detail, from top level planning to the roles of individual ships, contained in the diaries and Boston Journal pieces is rather astonishing.  There is also commentary on a wide variety of non-military subjects, including interactions with local civilians and slaves, but the greatest value lies in the journalist's military record of events, especially for the naval campaign.  While no expert on the sources, I cannot recall any individual writings, especially from a civilian, that approach Hills' broad knowledge and attentiveness.

Editor Dyson is to be applauded for both recognizing the value of the journals and organizing them in a useful manner for readers and researchers.  In addition to coming up with a short biographical sketch of his subject, Dyson offers useful narrative interludes throughout and effectively transitions between journal entries. Note is made of the numerous places where large sections of the journal entries remain illegible.  He also inserts, at appropriate places, Hills's Journal articles, which are polished, professional pieces in sharp contrast to the informal, often jumpy style (two words sentences are common) of the journal entries.   As an added treat, Hills's map sketches (a series of seven) of the river engagements fought between New Orleans and Forts St. Phillip and Jackson are also reproduced. Finally, Dyson arranged in the rear of the book, a collection of longer, more descriptive, Boston Journal reports. Again, most of these relate to the 1862 New Orleans campaign.  The bibliography is thin and the editor's footnoting is not as extensive as some readers might wish for, but any drawbacks are outweighed by the immense value of the material itself and Dyson's thoughtful and skillful organization of the project.

A Civil War Correspondent in New Orleans cannot be recommended highly enough to students of the 1862 campaign that captured the city. In addition to being more cover-to-cover readable than most primary source material compilations, the value of Dyson's discoveries and work to anyone wishing to fulfill the Civil War literature's long standing need of a full, scholarly treatment of the New Orleans Campaign is significant.

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