Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Review - "A Family and Nation under Fire: The Civil War Letters and Journals of William and Joseph Medill" ed. by Georgiann Baldino

[A Family and Nation under Fire: The Civil War Letters and Journals of William and Joseph Medill edited by Georgiann Baldino (Kent State University Press, 2018). Hardcover, maps, photos, notes, select source list, index. Pages main/total:xiii,209/245. ISBN:978-1-60635-336-3. $34.95]

Edited by Georgiann Baldino, A Family and Nation under Fire is at its heart a collection of previously unpublished diaries and letters written by William Medill and older brother Joseph. Most Civil War students will have come across the name of Joseph Medill, the co-owner of the influential Republican newspaper Chicago Tribune, sometime in their reading. A lesser-known historical figure, brother William was an officer with the 8th Illinois Cavalry, a much-recognized regiment (frequently due to its association with the Battle of Gettysburg and Colonel William Gamble). During the pursuit of Robert E. Lee's defeated army after Gettysburg, Major Medill was mortally wounded on the picket line near Williamsport. The letters of both brothers are conspicuous for their outspoken opinions on military and political matters related to the conflict. Staunch Republicans of the more radical bent, both men openly criticized how the Union's civilian and military leaders conducted the war.

In a conflict that often exposed rifts in even close families, the Medill brothers were seemingly always on the same page when it came to intensely partisan zealotry that was radically antislavery in sentiment and wholly in favor of hard war measures right from the war's beginning. Joseph Medill is often portrayed as a friend of Lincoln but his rather violent assaults on Lincoln's practicality when it came to politics and slavery could be as harsh in tone as those launched by any enemy. Medill's rebuke of Lincoln's overruling John C. Fremont's emancipation and confiscation measures in 1861 Missouri is another example of the great strain that existed between ideological extremists like Medill and moderates like Lincoln (who could not afford to alienate his proslavery Border State allies wholesale). In his correspondence to Lincoln, Medill also criticized existing conscription loopholes (e.g. commutation fees) and agitated against limits on black enlistment.

Moving from the political to the military sphere, William Medill's frequent commentaries regarding his army service offer similar insights into the radical versus moderate divide within the Union war effort. In his letters, he expresses willingness from the very beginning to attack slavery wherever he encountered it and plunder without restraint the property of southern civilians regardless of allegiance. Interestingly, when it came to ratifying the new Illinois state constitution, William believed strongly in disallowing the soldier vote, citing an inability for those in field to adequately inform themselves of the relevant issues. Ironically, that was much the same argument that Democrats made during subsequent hotly contested mid-term and 1864 elections.

The letters of Captain, and later Major, William Medill to brother Joseph and several other family members comprise the great bulk of correspondence compiled in the volume. In addition to the perspectives already mentioned above, William Medill's lengthy and thoughtful letters are rich in military detail, covering both his 90-day service with Captain Barker's Chicago Dragoons and his tragically limited time with the 8th Illinois Cavalry (a three-year regiment). In addition to commenting on politics, William frequently complained of the slow pace of operations in northern Virginia and on the Peninsula during the first year of the war. During this period, the 8th primarily conducted scouting and recon operations that didn't particularly enhance Medill's generally poor view of army life. Also, like many of his fellow volunteers, he wanted the army to move faster, although his excoriation of "proslavery" generals didn't extend to McClellan personally until months later when Robert E. Lee's army successfully reestablished itself in Virginia after its close call in Maryland. Exhibiting an 'anyone but McClellan' attitude, Medill welcomed the general's dismissal and the appointment of Ambrose Burnside to head the Army of the Potomac, even though he questioned Burnside's competence and believed another heavy defeat would likely follow. In remarkably prescient anticipation of Burnside being undermined by a cabal of generals, Medill advocated a wholesale firing of the army leadership and fresh restart with what he felt was a more European-style (or at least what he viewed as such) organization. Like his brother, William proved to be more ideologue than democratic realist.

William observed Fredericksburg from afar and was away with General W.W. Averell's command during Stoneman's Raid, so he missed the most significant mounted operation of the Chancellorsville Campaign. Taken ill soon after, he bravely left his sickbed to take command of the 8th after the regiment's officer contingent was hit hard at Brandy Station in June 1863. His last letter home dated later that month described the Gettysburg Campaign fighting at the Blue Ridge Gaps. In the book, Baldino successfully bridges the gap between William's last letter and his July 16 death at the age of 27 with information gleaned from other sources. In piecing together Medill's activities (and that of his regiment) before, during, and after Gettysburg, she utilizes to good effect his own pocket journal, the diary of brother Joseph (who was with William when he passed), additional family letters, Abner Hard's 1868 regimental history, official reports, and other sources.

In addition to compiling the material for publication and integrating outside sources to fill in other gaps similar to the one mentioned above, Baldino contributes volume and chapter introductions, abundant bridging narrative, and endnotes. To enrich the reader experience even further, Baldino also weaves into the book other letters beyond those of Joseph and William. One of the more interesting ones is a letter from Joseph's brother-in-law that attempts to enlist the influence of the newspaper editor in gaining official approval of a speculative (and rather sketchy-sounding) scheme to sell horses to the army.

The volume's collection of Medill family letters and dairies, in conjunction with Georgiann Baldino's expansive editing, represents a significant contribution to both the political and military components of Civil War scholarship. William Medill's letters in particular offer valuable insights into the 8th Illinois Cavalry regiment's service in the eastern theater during the first half of the conflict. Recommended.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful review. Your knowledge and perspective help place the Medill papers in the context of great events.


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