Sunday, December 1, 2013

Phillips, ed. : "TORN BY WAR: The Civil War Journal of Mary Adelia Byers"

[Torn by War: The Civil War Journal of Mary Adelia Byers edited by Samuel R. Phillips (University of Oklahoma Press, 2013). Softcover, 3 maps, photos, illustrations, notes, appendices, index. 253 pp. ISBN:978-0-8061-4395-8 $19.95]

Teenager Mary Adelia Byers begins her Civil War journal with the Union occupation of Batesville, Arkansas in May 1862. Byers correctly saw that the arrival of Union forces was a seminal event affecting personal, family, and community fortunes and was determined to document the experience. For the rest of the war (with the exception of 1865's single entry and a long period of malarial illness the previous year), she was a steady chronicler of events.  Edited by Samuel Phillips, this remarkable first person record has been published under the title Torn by War: The Civil War Journal of Mary Adelia Byers.

What becomes immediately apparent to the reader of the Mary Byers journal is the deep level of self-knowledge for such a young person (she was only 15 in 1862) and how clearly, confidently, and well she articulates her thoughts and feelings. While Mary often decries her own silliness in social situations, neglectfulness in household duties, etc., the opposite impression of her character emerges from her writing. Throughout the journal, she maturely documents her sincere struggle with Christian faith and the internal and external pressures to publicly embrace organized religion by joining a local congregation. The manner in which she handles her suitors (though with the occasional outburst of teenage caprice), soberly evaluates the romantic attachments of others in her social group, and deals with difficult relatives demonstrate wisdom beyond her years.

Slavery is mentioned very little, though her widowed mother [Mary's father, John Hancock Byers, died before the war] had a maid and family benefactor Uncle William was a slaveholder. When news of the Emancipation Proclamation spread, the slaves became unruly to such a degree that they were given the ultimatum to either stay or leave. Unsurprisingly, they departed service, with the journal treating with little fanfare and seemingly few regrets what most whites at the time considered shocking social upheaval.

With many southern civilian Civil War diaries and journals full of tales of privation and destruction, the Byers family and circle of friends appear to have escaped the worst experiences of those with pro-Confederate allegiances in the occupied South. Beyond passing note of some fencing lost to a nearby Union encampment, Byers does not mention any serious property loss or really any substantial want in food, clothing, and shelter. It undoubtedly helped that they adopted proven self-preservation measures, among them not resisting Union soldier visits and boarders. In fact, the Confederate Arkansans's Missouri allies end up being the primary targets of abuse, especially from the disliked Byers cousin Henry. No one explains why in their minds Missourians were deserving of such vitriolic disdain, but readers familiar with the Arkansas Civil War primary source literature recognize the posture as by no means rare.  The irony that thousands of Missouri soldiers risked their lives defending the very Arkansas homes of those so loudly voicing such views went apparently unappreciated. The negative feeling reached far beyond mere state rivalry and one wonders how seriously the animosity damaged cooperative defense of the upper reaches of the Confederate Trans-Mississippi department.

Even though it was a military event that sparked the beginning of the Byers journal, little thought and content are directed toward the movements of nearby armies, or the campaigns and battles fought elsewhere. Perhaps this is to be expected from the personal journal of a teenage girl likely more interested in other things, but those seeking such information are advised to look elsewhere. Editor Phillips makes heavy use in his contextual footnotes of Freeman Mobley's Making Sense of the Civil War in Batesville-Jacksonport and Northeast Arkansas 1861-1874 (2005)*, and that wouldn't be a bad starting point.

Though the array of source material utilized for annotation is not exhaustive, the editorial package overall is more than solid. To help readers keep track of the diary's often bewildering cast of friends, acquaintances, and family members, Phillips assembles a helpful Byers family tree and descriptive list of individuals roughly in order of first appearance in Byers's writing. Of the trio of maps, the one depicting Batesville and environs is very helpful in locating places mentioned in the diary. Phillips was also able to collect a good number of photographs of Byers family and friends. The four appendices reproduce interesting published articles and reports. They include a collection of federal army impressions of Batesville, a Civil War-centric history of the Catalpa Hall estate built by William Byers, brief biographical material on Judge Byers, and some accounts of the February 1864 skirmish at Waugh's Farm. It's all very relevant and worthwhile local history.

Torn By War
is a rich personal account of the middle class Confederate civilian experience in a geographically isolated, yet militarily contested, region (NE Arkansas and the town of Batesville) not often addressed in the published Civil War literature. Its value is only enhanced by the precociously perceptive nature of young Mary Byers and her unusually expressive writing. Indeed, social historians would do well to add this journal to any bibliography hosting the finest examples of female Civil War diarists, journal writers, and correspondents.

* - This somewhat flawed but useful book was briefly discussed on this site [here], and was also reissued recently under a new title Civil War!: A Missing Piece of the Puzzle Northeast Arkansas 1861-1874.

More CWBA reviews of UOP titles:
* Columns of Vengeance: Soldiers, Sioux, and the Punitive Expeditions, 1863-1864
* Los Angeles in Civil War Days, 1860-1865
* Historical Atlas of Oklahoma, 4th edition
* George Crook: From the Redwoods to Appomattox
* Violent Encounters: Interviews on Western Massacres
* A Perfect Gibraltar: The Battle for Monterrey, Mexico, 1846
* Patrick Connor's War: The 1865 Powder River Indian Expedition (Arthur H. Clark)
* Texas: A Historical Atlas
* Civil War Arkansas 1863: The Battle for a State
* Jayhawkers: The Civil War Brigade of James Henry Lane
* Powder River Odyssey: Nelson Cole's Western Campaign of 1865 the Journals of Lyman G. Bennett and Other Eyewitness Accounts (Arthur H. Clark)
* Three Days in the Shenandoah: Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester
* The Uncivil War: Irregular Warfare In The Upper South, 1861-1865
* The Civil War in Arizona: The Story of the California Volunteers, 1861-1865

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