Monday, April 9, 2018

Booknotes: The Diaries of Reuben Smith, Kansas Settler and Civil War Soldier

New Arrival:
The Diaries of Reuben Smith, Kansas Settler and Civil War Soldier
  edited by Lana Wirt Myers (UP of Kansas, 2018).

Being a newly-arrived immigrant from Britain who plunged headlong into the Kansas troubles must have been quite a jarring introduction to America for Reuben Smith. His written accounts of this experience and much more have been edited by Lana Wirt Myers under the title The Diaries of Reuben Smith, Kansas Settler and Civil War Soldier. Aligning himself with the Free State faction, "(t)he young Englishman wrote down what he witnessed in a diary where he had already begun documenting his days in a clear and candid fashion. As beautifully written as they are keenly observant, these diaries afford an unusual view of America in its most tumultuous times, of Kansas in its critical historical moments, and of one man's life in the middle of it all for fifty years."

More from the description: "From his moving account of traveling from England by ship to his reflections on settling in the newly opened Kansas Territory to his observations of war and politics, Smith provides a picture that is at once panoramic and highly personal. His diaries depict the escalation of the Civil War along the Kansas-Missouri border as well as the evolution of a volunteer soldier from an inexperienced private to a seasoned officer and government spy. They take us inside military camps and generals’ quarters, to the front lines of battle and in pursuit of bushwhackers William Quantrill and Cole Younger. Later, they show us Smith as a state representative and steward of the Kansas State Insane Asylum in its early years. In historic scenes and poignant personal stories, these diaries offer a unique perspective on life in the Midwest in the last half of the nineteenth century."

Apparently, Smith's diary writing spanned decades so the volume comprises a selection of entries, the great majority covering the Bleeding Kansas and Civil War years.  My quick flip through the book didn't reveal which unit(s) he joined so that will have to await closer reading. The battles of Lone Jack and Westport get their own chapters, and it appears that Smith wrote quite extensively about his military experiences, which should greatly interest students of the Trans-Mississippi theater. The book is organized into twenty chapters plus a general introduction.  The diary material is lightly annotated (averaging less than a handful of endnotes per chapter), but Myers provides chapter introductions as well as additional editorial commentary within.

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