Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Booknotes: Toward a More Perfect Union

New Arrival:
Toward a More Perfect Union: The Civil War Letters of Frederic and Elizabeth Lockley edited by Charles E. Rankin (Univ of Neb Press, 2023).

Preserved at the Huntington Library in California is a very large collection of letters between immigrant New Yorker and Civil War soldier Frederic Lockley and his wife Elizabeth. Over 400 in total, 162 have been selected by editor Charles Rankin for inclusion in his book Toward a More Perfect Union: The Civil War Letters of Frederic and Elizabeth Lockley.

Readers are fortunate to have both sets of letters, a rarity at this scale. These letters "narrate a chronological three-year story, from 1862 to 1865. When Frederic enlisted at thirty-seven, he and Elizabeth promised each other they would write twice a week and, for the most part, they did. These are not average letters. A published author, Frederic was remarkably insightful and articulate and Elizabeth was literate and expressive as well." Born in England, Frederic Lockley was a naturalized US citizen since 1859 when he enlisted in the Union Army, motivated by the desire to preserve the Union but also, as Rankin notes, by generous enlistment bounties and general dissatisfaction with his job as a book salesman.

An older enlistee, Frederic signed on with the 113th New York in the summer of 1862, and five months later the unit was reorganized as the Seventh New York Heavy Artillery regiment. As was the case with so many HA regiments, the Seventh's war was relatively easy going until the stupendous scale of Union losses suffered during the 1864 Overland Campaign drew more and more garrison troops into front line fighting, where many of the new arrivals in turn suffered horrendous casualties at the hands of Lee's grizzled veterans. Fortunately for the Lockley family, Frederic passed through that bloody maelstrom and survived the war.

According to Rankin, love and its reciprocation comprise the strongest theme present in the Lockley letters, but there is also abundant subject matter related to Frederic's military service. More from the description: "Frederic wrote of life in garrison duty in defense of Washington, manning the siege lines at Petersburg, and guarding Union parolees and Confederate prisoners of war. But his letters also show strong ties to home and his need for those ties in order to maintain his own mental and emotional equilibrium in the face of the horrors of war."

Written from the home front, Elizabeth's letters "reflect an urban setting and the perspective of a young, recently married woman who spent much of her time parenting three young children from Frederic’s first marriage. In fact, children and parenting assume a theme in Fred and Lizzie’s correspondence almost as constant and consequential as the war itself."

In putting together what amounts to a nearly 450-page volume, Rankin's editorial contributions are prodigious. In addition to penning a lengthy prologue, Rankin's chapter introductions set the stage for what follows, and he provides further context to the letters through copious bridging narrative. Letters and text are also annotated.


  1. Looks very interesting. What is your favorite collection of Civil War letters?

    1. I don't think anyone has ever asked me that before. I'm not sure if I can arrive at a satisfactory answer. I'll have to think about it.

    2. Great question! I really like 'Hard Marching Every Day' by Wilber Fisk even it is on the AOP because he has a wonderful conversational style that is very modern (even if he didn't tell everything). On the Confederate side there are quite a few too I'd have to go through my collection. Kent State published some tremendous collections over the years.


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