Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Booknotes: Contemners and Serpents

New Arrival:
Contemners and Serpents: The James Wilson Family Civil War Correspondence edited by Theodore Albert Fuller and Thomas Daniel Knight (Mercer UP, 2022).

From the description: Contemners and Serpents "presents letters from the family of Presbyterian missionaries James and Eliza Wilson during the Civil War era. Spanning the period from 1859 to 1877, during which family members lived in Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina, included are letters written by James Wilson, his wife Eliza Griffing Edwards Wilson, their four sons, and their only daughter. The book offers a range of individual voices and relates to the battlefield, the home front, and the eastern and western theaters of the war." The collection contains over one-hundred letters and documents, and eighty-five letters are reproduced in full for this volume.

This publishing project was very long in the making. Seeing their value, USAF Col. Theodore Fuller purchased the documents from the Wilson family estate, arranging the material in rough book form by 1967 but never publishing it. The unfinished book continued to gather dust after Fuller's 1990 passing, until Thomas Knight, a graduate student at the time, was prevailed upon to complete it. Knight conducted further research into the lives and activities (including their missionary work) of the Wilson family, the depth of which can be seen in his footnotes, and updated Fuller's text. Knight also contributes abundant bridging text of his own as well as a concluding chapter detailing postwar lives of the Wilsons.

The unusual family background might offer some unique, or at least equally unusual, perspectives. More from the description: "The Wilsons are an interesting case because the parents were Pennsylvania natives, the children were born and reared in India, and the family spent most of the years between 1834 and 1852 outside the United States. Neither slaveholders nor landowners, the Wilsons had varied approaches to the war, ranging from neutral or pro-Union sentiment to extreme support for the Confederacy."

Through some means or another, all five of the male Wilsons ended up serving in the Confederate Army. Wilson letters come from both the Army of Northern Virginia and Army of Tennessee, and the four brothers fought in almost every major eastern theater battle from 1862-65. Their letters talk about their wartime experiences, "including comments on camp life and assessments of major military and political leaders." Letters to them from home address "local conditions in Tennessee and Georgia during the second half of the war." The saved correspondence also extends into the postwar period.

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