Thursday, April 16, 2020

Review - "The Spirits of Bad Men Made Perfect: The Life and Diary of Confederate Artillerist William Ellis Jones" by Constance Jones, ed.

[The Spirits of Bad Men Made Perfect: The Life and Diary of Confederate Artillerist William Ellis Jones ed. by Constance Hall Jones (Southern Illinois University Press, 2020) Softcover, 9 maps, photos, illustrations, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. Pp. 263. ISBN:978-0-8093-3761-3. $26.50]

The Richmond-born son of a well-to-do Welsh immigrant merchant, William Ellis Jones (1838-1910) enlisted as an artillery private in the Crenshaw (Virginia) Battery in March 1862. He served with the Army of Northern Virginia's long arm until a Spotsylvania wound led to his 1864 medical discharge. Jones spent the rest of the war years employed as a Quartermaster Department clerk in the capital. After the war, Jones returned to his prior occupation in the printing and publishing business. The firm he worked with and eventually purchased was highly successful and a major publisher of Confederate history in partnership with the Southern Historical Society Papers and other organizations (including the Virginia Historical Society). In The Spirits of Bad Men Made Perfect one will find not only an annotated version of Jones's diary but also a rather extensive biographical treatment of its author.

Though spanning less than ten months of early-war campaigning, Jones's wartime diary (March 14, 1862 through December 31, 1862) is noteworthy on several counts. Published diaries of Confederate artillery privates are uncommon enough on their own, but Jones's diary is even more remarkable for its exceptionally observant account of the most fluid year of fighting in the eastern theater. Jones also writes well, fulsomely, and regularly. Replete with literary allusions, environmental notations, and detailed commentary on camping, marching, and fighting, the diary is a rather extraordinary day-by-day record of an artillerist's ground-level viewpoint of the Peninsula, Second Manassas, Maryland, and Fredericksburg campaigns. Most descriptive is the diary's Seven Days coverage, but it should also be mentioned on the other end of the spectrum that the detail contained in Jones's daily musings decreased steadily from the Maryland Campaign onward. Unfortunately for us, the diary simply ends at the conclusion of the calendar year, with no evidence that Jones picked up the pen again for the duration.

The considerable research editor Constance Hall Jones applied to her diary notes and commentary adds much in the way of supporting background information and useful context. On the other hand, in repeatedly questioning the diarist's wartime commitment (positioned in the book as contrasting significantly with his later "Lost Cause" advocacy) she arguably makes too much of Jones's March 1862 enlistment date, his clashes with battery officers (particularly Capt. Crenshaw), the abrupt termination of his diary, and his acceptance of a disability discharge. What the editor sees as collective evidence of lukewarm ardor others might see as rather unexceptional circumstances. On the last point, nothing solid is presented to raise suspicion that Jones's disability certificate was irregularly obtained.

A research effort similar to that devoted to annotating the diary was also spent on creating a wonderfully evocative portrait of Jones's antebellum Richmond upbringing and social circle. His family's extensive prewar business and trade interests in the city are explored at some length, as are its wartime enterprises. Picking up again after the diary ends, the editor's biographical narrative briefly describes the rest of Jones's Civil War career, that section concluding with a vivid account of the ruinous economic consequences of the wanton destruction that engulfed the capital during its April 1865 evacuation. Finally, notable insights into the nineteenth-century Richmond publishing scene are interspersed throughout the book, with particular emphasis placed on Jones's prominent role in promoting Confederate history and remembrance in print.

In expanding her study's purview beyond a brief Civil War diary to encompass its writer's personal, family, and professional connections with Richmond commerce, culture, and society over many decades, Constance Hall Jones has created a work of significant historiographical value on multiple levels. The Spirits of Bad Men Made Perfect is highly recommended.

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