Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Review - "High Private: The Trans-Mississippi Correspondence of Humorist R. R. Gilbert, 1862–1865" by Mary Cronin, ed.

[High Private: The Trans-Mississippi Correspondence of Humorist R. R. Gilbert, 1862–1865 edited by Mary M. Cronin (University of Tennessee Press, 2018). Hardcover, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xii,271/335. ISBN:978-1-62190-445-8. $50]

Rensselaer Reed Gilbert, a northern-born wartime humorist and reporter from Texas who wrote under the pen name High Private, was never as famous as Charles F. Brown's creation Artemus Ward, or Charles Henry Smith's Bill Arp, or David Locke's Petroleum V. Nasby, but he was a well-known "literary comedian" to citizens of the Confederate Trans-Mississippi. It's probably safe to say that the great majority of today's Civil War readers, including most serious students of the Civil War west of the Mississippi, have either never heard of him or have forgotten about him if they ever did. Details about Gilbert's personal life and his Vermont (some have said New York) upbringing remain sparse, but editor Mary Cronin makes good use of what information is available and builds significantly upon her earlier published work on Gilbert in her new book High Private: The Trans-Mississippi Correspondence of Humorist R. R. Gilbert, 1862–1865. The volume possesses significant biographical elements, but most of it consists of Cronin's edited compilation of a select but large body of Gilbert's newspaper writings (supplemented by a handful of revised war reminiscences originally published in the two early 1890s editions of Gilbert's Confederate Letters collection).

R.R. Gilbert had some apprentice medical training before the war but practiced little and instead attempted throughout his life to make a living in newspaper publication. Never a smashing pecuniary success at anything he tried, he lived a rather nomadic existence, starting a paper in one town only to soon either lose or sell the business before moving to another Texas community with his family to begin anew. A wag critic at the time suggested that Gilbert intended to fail at newspaper editorship in every town and city in the state.

Given that Gilbert was born and raised in a state that was as Yankee as one could find, an obvious question arises as to the source(s) of his seemingly wholesale adoption of southern culture, racial views, and radical pro-secession ideology. While Gilbert's conversion was far from an isolated case in antebellum America, it remains unfortunate that his innermost personal thoughts were not something he put to page (or if he did so privately such papers have either never been found or no longer exist). When his adopted state of Texas left the Union, Gilbert became an ardent Confederate nationalist and keen supporter of the war. Enlisting in Company B of the 6th Texas Volunteer Infantry Regiment, he frequently wrote to his home newspaper about his army experiences but never saw action before leaving the service to become a paid correspondent for the Houston Tri-Weekly Telegraph. Articles pertaining to his brief military service are generally limited in scope to remarks on camp life, drilling, training, and the government's inability to adequately arm and equip the men. When medically discharged in 1862 Gilbert was already past forty, much older than the typical Civil War private soldier.

Readers looking for detailed firsthand observations of Trans-Mississippi theater campaigns and battles won't find anything like that in his newspaper articles. Though Gilbert traveled some distances toward the front (ex. to Camden, Arkansas and Alexandria, Louisiana) to be near the most prominent generals in the department's military high command—particularly major generals John B. Magruder, Edmund Kirby Smith, and Richard Taylor—he was not a war correspondent in the traditional sense of accompanying the armies in the field. If he met and conversed with any of those high-ranking generals in person, he unfortunately did not record his impressions. Instead, Gilbert served his readers more in the capacity of news conduit between Texas and points east, an increasingly important job as the Trans-Mississippi became progressively isolated from the rest of the Confederacy beginning in 1863. Striving to convey news that was as accurate as possible, Gilbert actively canvassed Arkansas and Louisiana citizens for copies of cis-Mississippi newspapers of any origin, and he frequently chastised in print those owners reluctant to let him borrow them.

Not really a purveyor of detailed military news (though he did very frequently integrate hard news of various kinds into his writing), Gilbert's correspondence seems to have been primarily aimed at entertaining the home audience and boosting their morale after the war turned sour. He also certainly wasn't shy about creating shrill anti-Yankee propaganda for local consumption. He leveraged his northern background to both lend credibility to his propaganda and warn his fellow citizens that northerners would fight and fight very well. Alternately whimsical and bitingly critical, Gilbert's humor almost always employed creative wordplay and puns, and he used a number of recognizable rhetorical devices that Cronin discusses in the second chapter. Much of the time, Gilbert's articles combined humor and news (usually in that order) but also wrote many pieces that were entirely news, editorial, or comic sketch. His comedy was expressed in many different forms, too, among them songs, poetry, mock speeches, and the like.

As mentioned above, Gilbert could wield a sharp pen against friend and enemy alike. One rather expects to see exaggerated portraits of villainy when it comes to enemy soldiers and controversial northern generals like Ben Butler, but Gilbert also repeatedly criticized Confederate authorities for not paying the soldiers on time (or at all) and not supplying them properly. He also chastised civilians for war profiteering and shirking (the slow filling of ranks in the 6th being one factor behind why Gilbert saw no action during his brief army service). While humor proved to be a useful tool for relieving civilian stress amid the mounting pressures, worries, and privations of war, it also to some degree shielded critical yet loyal voices like Gilbert's from strong public and official reproach.

While Gilbert's wartime writing clearly demonstrates a deeply felt Confederate nationalism, his postwar correspondence indicates that he was also a highly pragmatic realist. Though undoubtedly rendered distraught by defeat and troubled by military occupation, he rather quickly accepted the new world he was confronted with and counseled other Texans to do the same. Rather than urging resistance, Gilbert lent his efforts fully toward promoting Texas's economic recovery and growth. What didn't change were his views on race. Feeling that freedpeople could never contribute to Texas's rebirth, Gilbert actively sought mass immigration from Europe to fulfill the state's labor and development needs.

Cronin, a journalism professor, does a fine job of adding historical and rhetorical context to Gilbert's life, writing content and style, and professional activities. She achieves this through two excellent introductory chapters, informative annotation, and careful selection of material. As mentioned before, not all of Gilbert's prodigious literary output is included in the book. Readers with a special interest in Civil War Houston might have benefited from the inclusion of Gilbert's "City Items" columns, but those are available online elsewhere. The work of R.R. Gilbert is richly deserving of the kind of reintroduction to modern readers that editor Mary Cronin provides so well, and the anthologized content and associated scholarship contained in High Private represents an important contribution to the study of war reporting in the Trans-Mississippi.

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