Monday, January 22, 2024

Booknotes: The Folly and the Madness

New Arrival:

The Folly and the Madness: The Civil War Letters of Captain Orlando S. Palmer, Fifteenth Arkansas Infantry edited by Thomas W. Cutrer (U Tenn Press, 2023).

When it comes to new releases, December and January have been pretty bleak months of slippery trips to an empty mailbox. It looks like things are finally looking up, though. Big thanks to the new marketing crew at UTP for reopening the pipeline on their own initiative and additionally offering to send over a number of bypassed titles from last year (several of which are of great interest to me). The first of these to arrive is Thomas Cutrer's The Folly and the Madness: The Civil War Letters of Captain Orlando S. Palmer, Fifteenth Arkansas Infantry, the latest entry in the publisher's Voices of the Civil War series.

All of Palmer's letters are addressed to his sister, the pair drawn tighter together by their shared experience of being orphaned at a young age (Orlando was only eleven). From the description: "With a closeness perhaps unique to siblings orphaned young, Orlando and Artimisia “Missie” Palmer exchanged intimate letters throughout their lives. These letters (interspersed with additional letters from Oliver Kennedy, the Palmers’ first cousin) offer a clear and entertaining window into the life and times of a junior Confederate officer serving in the Western Theater of the Civil War."

Orlando was originally from Alabama, near the state's border with Tennessee. Having received a strong education at the Cumberland law school in Lebanon, Tennessee, Palmer, like many others in his situation, sought professional opportunity in emerging areas of the west. For Orlando, that was Des Arc, Arkansas in 1861. Immediately caught up in the national crisis, Palmer enlisted in a local militia company there. More from the description: "Though he initially felt Americans would see “the folly and the madness” of going to war, Orlando enlisted as a private in what would become Company H of the First (later Fifteenth) Arkansas Infantry"

The Voices series typically selects Civil War letters, diaries, and memoirs that are, in some way or another, out of the ordinary. In this case, readers gain insights written by a literate junior officer with access to the higher echelons of Confederate command. Though Orlando told "his sister that he had volunteered “not for position, not for a name, but from patriotic motivation," he "was ambitious enough to secure an appointment as Maj. Gen. William Joseph Hardee’s personal secretary; he then rose to become his regiment’s sergeant major, his company’s first lieutenant, and later captain and brigade adjutant. Soldier letters typically report only what can be observed at the company level, but Palmer’s high-ranking position offers a unique view of strategic rather than tactical operations." Of course, there's more to Palmer's letters than military shop talk, and the value of his sibling correspondence is further "enhanced by his nuanced reflections on courtship customs and personal relationships."

In addition to organizing the letters for publication, Cutrer adds a brief general introduction, abundant bridging narrative, endnotes, and an afterword. The Folly and the Madness "adds depth to the genre of Civil War correspondence and provides a window into the lives of ordinary southerners at an extraordinary time."

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