Thursday, July 7, 2016

Review of McCardle, ed.: "A JUST AND HOLY CAUSE?: The Civil War Letters of Marcus Bethune Ely and Martha Frances Ely"

[A Just and Holy Cause?: The Civil War Letters of Marcus Bethune Ely and Martha Frances Ely edited by Linda S. McCardle (Mercer University Press, 2016). Hardcover, map, photos, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. 223 pp. ISBN:978-0-88146-569-3.$35]

Marcus Bethune Ely was a teacher from a prosperous slaveholding Georgia family who married similarly well-off Martha Frances Dumas in 1855. They settled in the Columbus area, and with the advent of Civil War, Marcus and three of his brothers enlisted in Company H ("Russell Guards") of the 54th Georgia Volunteer Infantry regiment. From May 1862 through spring 1864, Ely and his regiment drew garrison duty along the Georgia and South Carolina coasts. They spent much of this period picketing the southern water approach to Savannah at Beaulieu, where a detachment guarded a battery position blocking enemy passage up the Vernon River. Later, Ely and the 54th shifted above Savannah to Hardeeville, South Carolina and other points along the Savannah River. In May 1864, the regiment was transferred to Dalton, Georgia to join the Confederate host opposing General William T. Sherman's massive Union army group. The wartime correspondence between Marcus and Martha "Mattie" Ely is the subject of A Just and Holy Cause?, edited by Linda McCardle.

The affectionate letters between Marcus and Martha contain many of the themes commonly found in Civil War correspondence. Though neither particularly feared direct invasion where they were situated for most of the war, each expressed loneliness and longing along with mutual concerns over money, food shortages, scarcity of household necessities, illnesses, the fates of family and friends, the disposition of their slave property, and other day to day sources of worry during times of war. All manner of soldier and home front letters are published each year, and these are above average in terms of being thoughtful, observant, and articulate.

Politics and ideology are little discussed by either spouse, but the collection does provide insight into the Georgia home front experience, and publishing correspondence from Confederate soldiers that spent the majority of the war years defending isolated stretches of the South Atlantic coast is a rare event. With some gaps, Ely's letters document well the 54th's service history around Savannah. The fact that a major part of the regiment basically guarded an untested river battery for two critical years also serves as a signal reminder of just how much of a drain on scarce Confederate military resources fixed strategic points along the coast proved to be when active armies were in dire need of reinforcement.

While the letters are not heavily footnoted, editor Linda McCardle does pen a useful introduction that provides background information on the Elys as well as some general context for the letters that follow. The book could have used some more transitional narrative to fill in some of the larger time gaps between letters. With Marcus often sick from summer 1864 onward, it's often difficult to discern from the existing letters (or McCardle's notes) exactly which engagements he participated in during the 1864 Georgia and Tennessee campaigns. Some fine work is done with the supplemental materials. In addition to tracking down photographs, McCardle also reconstructs additional Ely and Dumas family history in an appendix. There's also a roster of sorts for the members of the Russell Guards which contains rather extensive biographical information for many of these soldiers. A Just and Holy Cause? definitely has unique points of interest that separate it from the general run of published Civil War letters.

More CWBA reviews of MUP titles:
* "Forward My Brave Boys!": A History of the 11th Tennessee Volunteer Infantry CSA, 1861-1865
* To the Gates of Atlanta: From Kennesaw Mountain to Peach Tree Creek, 1-19 July 1864
* Last to Join the Fight: The 66th Georgia Infantry
* The Battle of Peach Tree Creek: Hood's First Sortie, July 20, 1864
* Going Back the Way They Came: The Phillips Georgia Legion Cavalry Battalion
* I Will Give Them One More Shot: Ramsey's First Regiment Georgia Volunteers
* The Battle of Resaca: Atlanta Campaign, 1864
* Volunteers' Camp and Field Book
* Griswoldville
* Civil War Macon: The History of a Confederate City

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