Thursday, August 22, 2019

Review - "Held in Highest Esteem by All: The Civil War Letters of William B. Chilvers, 95th Illinois Infantry" by Pressly & Joiner, eds.

[Held in Highest Esteem by All: The Civil War Letters of William B. Chilvers, 95th Illinois Infantry edited by Thomas A. Pressly, III and Gary D. Joiner (State House Press, 2018). Softcover, maps, photos, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:x,149/250. ISBN978-1-933337-71-5. $39.95]

Raised in straitened circumstances in Norfolk, England and orphaned at a young age, William B. Chilvers immigrated to the United States with his aunt and uncle (George and Rebecca Burnham). Settling in northern Illinois with the Burnhams, Chilvers employed himself in carpentry and farming in the years before the outbreak of the Civil War. He enlisted in the 95th Illinois in August 1862. Returning home after the war, he split his time between the Chicago area and Nebraska, permanently settling in the latter with his wife in 1874. Through various government jobs in Plainview and Pierce, Chilvers achieved local prominence (even having a street and city park named after him) and raised a large family. Chilvers's family correspondence covering various aspects of his wartime service and postwar life is the subject of Held in Highest Esteem by All: The Civil War Letters of William B. Chilvers, 95th Illinois Infantry, edited by Thomas Pressly and Gary Joiner.

After an extended period of garrison duty in Tennessee and Mississippi, Chilvers and the 95th first saw major action during the Vicksburg siege. After the Hill City's fall, the regiment went back to rear area duties in and around Vicksburg and Natchez before joining the Red River Expedition in early 1864. Upon the conclusion of that disastrous Trans-Mississippi campaign, the regiment was sent to Memphis and took part in General Samuel Sturgis's sweep through northern Mississippi that ended in crushing defeat at Brice's Crossroads. Chilvers and his unit then crossed the Mississippi River once again for their new garrison assignment to NE Arkansas. Later in the year in response to Confederate general Sterling Price's Missouri expedition, the 95th was shipped to St. Louis and trailed Price through the middle part of the state before turning back and undertaking another long journey back across the Mississippi, this time to Nashville. After participating in the Battle of Nashville and subsequent pursuit of Hood's crumbling Army of Tennessee, the regiment was once again transferred to its familiar haunts in the lower Mississippi. Active campaigning ended with the final assaults on the enemy fortifications protecting Mobile, with Corporal Chilvers carrying the 95th's battle flag over the ramparts of Spanish Fort. For Chilvers, it was the end of an exceptionally winding wartime journey.

In full, the Chilvers correspondence collection comprises 170 letters written between William Chilvers and family members living in Illinois (the Burnhams) and England. Inside the book these are either reproduced in full or excerpted at varying lengths. In addition to inserting throughout the volume numerous photographs and supporting maps, the editors also offer extensively researched bridging narrative that effectively ties together the letters and fills in many coverage gaps.

Judging from the selections of letter material presented, the amount of direct combat experience Chilvers had during the war is unclear. Readers hoping for detailed accounts of Chilvers's far-flung battle service on both sides of the Mississippi will often be treated to tantalizing lead-ins that ultimately lack payoff. For example, in early 1864 Chilvers describes his unit's initial passage up the lower Red River (the 95th's companies were spread across a number of vessels, some serving as sharpshooters) but ends there. His recounting of his unit's participation in the Missouri Campaign later that year ends in a manner similarly abrupt with the regiment boarding transports to St. Louis. There are other examples. The 95th Illinois was positioned in the center of Sturgis's battle line at Brice's Crossroads, but Chilvers eschews chronicling his own personal experiences at the heart of the maelstrom there in favor of lambasting the courage and performance of his fellow white Union soldiers during that terrible defeat and rout. In all these cases, one would have to assume the editors would have included those passages telling 'the rest of the story' if they existed.

With battle details sparse, what is perhaps most remarkable about the Chilvers collection is its contribution to our understanding of how foreign-born soldiers viewed their army service and the Union war effort itself. Chilvers and the Burnhams were all three imbued with strong abolitionist feelings. Unlike many of their fellow Midwesterners, none of the three expressed any reservations toward emancipation being added to Union war aims. Chilvers himself was an early advocate of black enlistment into the army. In his letters, Chilvers sharply condemns the many episodes of both casual and malicious mistreatment of southern blacks by Union soldiers that he witnessed in the field. In some cases, he personally intervened. All in all, Chilvers had few good things to say about his fellow volunteers. According to him, they did not measure up to the discipline and fighting standards of British soldiers, or even their Confederate opponents.

Even though he chose to fight for an adopted country that provided opportunities for personal advancement and security that he never could have obtained as a poor orphan back in England, Chilvers still struggled with issues of national loyalty. In a letter to the Burnhams written in response to rumors of potential war between Britain and the U.S., Chilvers maintained that he was entirely uncertain about which side he would take in any potential conflict.

Chilvers and the Burnhams were Fremont Republicans through and through and favored Lincoln being replaced on the 1864 ticket (Chilvers had few problems with Lincoln himself in terms of ideological alignment but perceived him as a weak, indecisive leader that allowed a corrupt cabinet to run the war effort). With Lincoln support strong on both home and fighting fronts, they found their political stance to be unpopular to say the least. The Burnhams even complained that their neighbors saw them as little better than Copperheads. Chilvers also vented frustration at being lumped into the category of foreign-born mercenary, though it's unclear if nativist prejudice was something he encountered himself in the army or read about in anti-war newspaper editorials.

Effectively contextualized through well-researched notes and text from Pressly and Joiner, the collection of edited correspondence published in Held in Highest Esteem by All offers readers unusual insights into the western war as viewed through the reflective perspective of an immigrant volunteer. Recommended.

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