Monday, October 26, 2020

Booknotes: My Dear Nelly

New Arrival:
My Dear Nelly: The Selected Civil War Letters of General Orlando M. Poe to His Wife Eleanor edited by Paul Taylor (Kent St UP, 2020).

A recent book argued that northern engineering superiority was the decisive factor in Union victory. In terms of greatest individual contributions to that triumph, those of Ohio-born military engineer Orlando Metcalfe Poe frequently come to mind. Paul Taylor, who also happens to be Poe's biographer [see 2011's Orlando M. Poe: Civil War General and Great Lakes Engineer], has now edited the engineer officer's wartime letters to his wife. From the description: "More than 150 years after the end of the Civil War, West Point engineer and Brevet Brigadier General Orlando M. Poe (1832–1895) remains one of the Union’s most unsung heroes. He served the Union in uniform from day one of the conflict until the Confederate surrender in North Carolina in late April 1865, and he used his unparalleled ability to predict Confederate movements to lead multiple successful campaigns that turned the tide of the war. Accordingly, the roar of battle permeates this collection of 241 highly literate and previously unpublished wartime letters to his wife, Eleanor Brent Poe."

Certainly anyone with a great interest in Civil War military engineering or in the campaigns Poe participated in will be among the volume's target audience, but in My Dear Nelly: The Selected Civil War Letters of General Orlando M. Poe to His Wife Eleanor "readers will discover more than just Poe’s battlefield experiences. His observations to his wife regarding sense of duty, marital responsibilities, societal issues, and broader home front matters also provide a unique window into the nature of husband-wife relationships in the mid-19th century. The raw intimacy of these letters, coupled with Poe’s strong sense of social awareness, illustrates the contrasting forces of “manliness” and domesticity during this time period, exemplified by vivid descriptions of both the dynamics between a soldier and his wife and between the home front and the battlefield."

The book's extensive collection of Poe letters begins in October 1860 and ends in late-April 1865. Poe started his Civil War career on General McClellan's staff and was later promoted to regimental and brigade commander in the eastern theater from the Peninsula Campaign through Fredericksburg. Unfortunately for him, Poe's appointment to the rank of brigadier general was not confirmed by the Senate. Reverting back to Regular Army captain of engineers, Poe was transferred out west and made his name as the architect of the Knoxville defenses before being appointed by Sherman as his chief engineer for the Atlanta Campaign, the March to the Sea, and the Carolinas Campaign. All of these events are addressed in the book.

Taylor's preface and introduction together introduce readers to Poe's life, professional career, and marriage and provide essential context to the volume's content. Additionally, the letters are annotated and supplemented by italicized bridging narrative where appropriate (and a selection of maps and photographs is also included). The editorial combination ensures that this collection of private letters is "set firmly within the broader context of the war and the home front."

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