Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Review - "Life in the Mississippi Marine Brigade: The Civil War Diary of George Painter" by Beverly Kerr, ed.

[Life in the Mississippi Marine Brigade: The Civil War Diary of George Painter edited by Beverly Wencek Kerr (Author, 2020). Softcover, diary images, bibliography. Pages:xi,240. ISBN:979-8-559686-03-5. $14.95]

Consisting of an infantry battalion, a cavalry battalion, and an artillery battery (all transported by the Ellet ram fleet), the regiment-sized Mississippi Marine Brigade assumed a number of notable combat and support roles up and down its namesake river. Organized during the winter of 1862-63 and independent of both army and navy hierarchies over most of its existence, the MMB proved useful as an all-arms, amphibious strike force before its unfortunate penchant for looting and indiscriminate destruction led to it being disbanded in August 1864. Not much has been published about the Mississippi Marine Brigade in book-length format during or subsequent to the near century that passed between former MMB captains Isaac Newell and Warren Crandall's History of the Ram Fleet and the Mississippi Marine Brigade in the War for the Union on the Mississippi and Its Tributaries: The Story of the Ellets and Their Men (1907) and Chester Hearns's Ellet's Brigade: The Strangest Outfit of All (2000). Published letters and diaries are similarly scarce. Norman E. Clarke edited the correspondence of one of the formation's most prominent officers and published the book in 1961 under the title Warfare Along the Mississippi: The Letters of Lieutenant Colonel George E. Currie, but there is little else*. That dearth of available works makes Beverly Kerr's Life in the Mississippi Marine Brigade: The Civil War Diary of George Painter all the more valuable to the western theater literature.

At first glance it might seem that service in the Mississippi Marine Brigade would be attractive, but filling the ranks proved highly difficult. Eventually, recruiting officers had to resort to visiting hospital wards to sign up medical transfers and discharges, their pitch being that service in the unit would be less than arduous. One of those recruits was Private George Painter, who suffered multiple typhoid complications and remained sickly throughout his enlistment. He joined the MMB in January 1863 and immediately started a daily diary that ran unbroken, despite frequent health relapses, from January 4 through December 31. Though his weakened constitution often relegated him to guard duty while his comrades were experiencing more dangerous adventures, Painter did observe firsthand more than enough events to make his diary appeal to readers outside research specialists. At the very least, Painter's dedication as a diarist makes his writing an invaluable record of the unit's whereabouts and actions on a daily basis over an entire year.

Painter's diary exposes the full range of MMB activities, which included extensive foraging, destruction of rivercraft (to deny their use to the enemy), chasing guerrillas, breaking up river blockades, transporting army units, and occasional rear-area garrisoning. In March, two ships from the MMB fleet were tasked with passing the Vicksburg batteries, and one was sunk. The following month, the brigade escorted Abel Streight's raiders over the first leg of their journey before returning to the Vicksburg front. There, during May through July, the MMB garrisoned Snyder's Bluff for a time and did more scouting and foraging along both banks of the Mississippi. However, complaints about the sharp increase in their incendiary proclivities soon led General Grant to employ them as troop transports through much of August, as much to keep them out of trouble as to be useful. The men of the brigade could not have been completely unaware of their growing negative reputation within the military, but Painter does not comment upon the matter. Perhaps that speaks to the insularity within independently operating units such as this one.

The MMB was primarily tasked with counterguerrilla operations through the end of September, when their boats were taken away for detached service and the men relegated to shore duty. This was only temporary, though, and by November they were back afloat and operating against both irregular and conventional foes. Those events are documented in Painter's diary before his entries finally cease in late December. Unfortunately for us, Painter did not pick up his pen to describe the MMB's controversial role in the 1864 Red River Campaign or his unit's subsequent actions ashore in Arkansas against Confederate attempts to blockade the Mississippi. Painter's views on the brigade's sullied reputation and ultimate disbandment are also lost to history. Sadly, Painter himself did not live far beyond the MMB's demise, succumbing in September 1864 to his old typhoid nemesis while a patient in a Vicksburg military hospital.

Editor Beverly Kerr expresses some concern that the diary might not be exciting enough for many readers, but, though most entries are only a few sentences in length, there is enough meat on the bone to attract those interested in the wartime actions of the MMB as well as Mississippi Valley military operations more generally. Though the volume is not formally annotated and possesses only a slim bibliography, Kerr's connecting narrative does provide between diary entries some persons, places, and events background information of the kind normally found in footnotes. Diary presentation is a bit unusual in that each entry appears twice. Unedited diary text is shown in italics and immediately below that, in a box, is the same text edited for modern spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Painter writes more than well enough (especially in comparison to many other Civil War letter writers and diarists) to have not made this feature necessary, but it doesn't detract from anything. The book does not include any maps, illustrations, or historical photographs, the only images being photographs of original diary pages used as chapter separators. Though the absence of those supplements is felt, the diary itself stands on its own merits as a quite useful firsthand account of the activities of the controversial Mississippi Marine Brigade during much of its relatively brief existence. The book also serves as a compassionate memorial to Pvt. Painter's long-suffering but uncomplaining Civil War service, which likely would have remained, like so many others, completely unknown and unremembered by all but a few without this publication.

* - I am not familiar with 1994's Brown Paper Rams and Horse Marines: The History of the United States Ram Fleet and the Mississippi Marine Brigade in the American Civil War, self-published by Stephen R. Howard. The Diary of Josiah Henry Goodwin: Fife Major for the Fife and Drum Band of the Mississippi Marine Brigade, Covering the Period January 1, 1863 Through June 1, 1864 was apparently transcribed and bound in a single copy for library use.

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