Thursday, May 16, 2013

Spurgeon: "A KANSAS SOLDIER AT WAR: The Civil War Letters of Christian and Elise Dubach Isely"

[A Kansas Soldier at War: The Civil War Letters of Christian and Elise Dubach Isely by Ken Spurgeon (The History Press, 2013). Softcover, 2 maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:161/187. ISBN:978-1-62619-015-3 $21.99]

Swiss immigrant husband and wife Christian and Elise Isely were residing in St. Joseph, Missouri in 1861. A Douglas Democrat, Christian, perhaps through his experience of the border troubles of the 1850s, was more anti-slavery and pro-Union than his parents and siblings living in Winesburg, Ohio. When Civil War broke out, he decided to enlist in the 2nd Kansas Cavalry, leaving his politically like-minded wife behind in Missouri. Their hundreds of letters to each other comprise the backbone of Ken Spurgeon's A Kansas Soldier at War. Eschewing the typical format of published Civil War correspondence, the author instead incorporates letter excerpts of various length into a narrative structure.

It is obvious from the pair's always affectionate writings that they were extremely devoted to one another. It also becomes immediately apparent to the reader that a common religious faith was an integral part of their marital bond. Even in an era where such sentiments were commonly expressed in letters, their pervasiveness in the Isely correspondence makes it clear that spiritual considerations were deeply embedded in all aspects of their lives.

In contrast to his brother Henry's service with the Union army in South Carolina and Virginia, Christian experienced little in the way of direct combat, so readers looking forward to information about the fighting in the Trans-Mississippi will be somewhat disappointed. For an extended period, Christian was detached from the regiment to man the defenses of Fort Leavenworth. When he finally did join the 2nd Kansas Cavalry in the field, most of his combat experience was in fighting guerrillas. His most detailed account of a specific battle is for Devil's Backbone, a September 1863 fight in Arkansas that remains little regarded in the literature. Before mustering out at the expiration of his enlistment in fall 1864, he also participated in the Camden Expedition, though it is unclear from the passive nature of the selected excerpts what he actually experienced firsthand.

What I found most interesting was the stormy relationship between the couple and the Iselys in Ohio, who were all anti-war Democrats. As mentioned above, Christian was also a Democrat [he and his wife gave their first son, who unfortunately died as an infant, the middle name "McClellan"], but repeatedly clashed with his parents and brothers over fighting a destructive war to reunite the country and abolish slavery. When heated acrimony threatened permanent schism, Elise would always entreat her husband to preserve family relations and never allow politics to interfere with personal regard. However, emotions seemed to always be on edge.  Elise herself resided with the Ohio Iselys for a lengthy period during the war, a situation that resulted in many uncomfortable moments but also likely helped keep the family intact. When both of Christian's brothers were drafted, Henry chose to report while the other purchased a substitute. Henry, who remained a critic of the Lincoln administration while in the army, deeply resented Christian's "Copperhead" accusations while the younger Isely was fighting and bleeding for the country. He even reenlisted while Christian left the army for home. Even so, with the help of Elise (who liked Henry very much when met him in Ohio), their strained relationship never reached the breaking point.

While it will disappoint some readers that full transcriptions of the family correspondence are not available, A Kansas Soldier at War is a valuable publication. Published Trans-Mississippi soldier letters remain rare so those with a special interest in the war in Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, and the Indian Territory will find Spurgeon's work useful. While the book's contribution to the military historiography may be limited, as a social historical case study of the conflicts of conscience experienced by countless families during the Civil War, it is quite insightful.

1 comment:

  1. Great to see the writings of an immigrant family finding their way to publication.


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