Monday, September 21, 2020

Booknotes: A Volunteer in the Regulars

New Arrival:
A Volunteer in the Regulars: The Civil War Journal and Memoir of Gilbert Thompson, US Engineer Battalion edited by Mark A. Smith (UT Press, 2020).

For decades now, University of Tennessee Press's prolific Voices of the Civil War series has published a broad range of primary source material written by civilian observers and military participants. The newest volume, A Volunteer in the Regulars: The Civil War Journal and Memoir of Gilbert Thompson, US Engineer Battalion, certainly ranks among the most unique entries in the series.

From the description: "At the outbreak of the Civil War, Massachusetts native Gilbert Thompson joined the regular army, which assigned him to the engineer battalion, a unit that provided critical support for the Union military effort in building bridges and roads and surveying and producing maps. While serving, Thompson kept a journal that eventually filled three volumes. The author’s early education in a utopian community called Hopedale left him well read, affording a journal peppered with literary allusions."

After the war, Thompson wrote a memoir of his service that is also integrated into the volume. "Once the war ended, Corporal Thompson added some postwar reflections to create a unified single volume, which editor Mark A. Smith has carefully arranged so that the reader can clearly distinguish between Thompson’s contemporary accounts and his postwar reminiscences." I think the editor's decision to present passages from the memoir separate from and directly below the corresponding journal entries was the best way to facilitate side-by-side reader comparison of how Thompson covered/perceived events during the war and how he remembered them later on.

The volume is profusely illustrated with a pair of modern maps and a host of hand-drawn maps created by Thompson. Also included are dozens of Thompson sketches and finished artwork along with a collection of contemporary photographs. More from the description: "An accomplished artist and topographer, Thompson illustrated his journals, adding depth to his narrative with portraits of key figures, drawings of ordinary scenes such as soldiers playing chess, and sights of the war. Additionally, he collected photographs both during and after the war, many of which are included."

Support units, along with the men who led or served in them, are receiving more attention in the literature these days, and the Thompson journal/memoir is a significant contribution to this small but growing body of scholarship. More: "Thompson’s wartime musings and postwar recollections have much to offer. Few diaries contain glimpses into the workings of a highly specialized unit such as the engineer battalion, and Thompson’s skills in depicting daily camp life in both words and pictures provide a distinctive look at the Union Army during the Civil War as well as an insightful look into the human condition."

In addition to compiling and arranging the Thompson source material that runs well over 300 pages, Smith contributes a volume introduction and epilogue along with over 100 pages of extensive explanatory footnotes. Thompson's writings encompass military engineering experiences and duties spanning the 1862 Peninsula Campaign through the Siege of Petersburg so there is a great deal of information inside the book that will interest students of eastern theater operations.

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