Monday, August 15, 2011

An Uncommon Little Book

An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864. Edited by Lauren Cook Burgess, with a Foreword by James M. McPherson.  The Minerva Center, Pasadena, MD, (1994) 210 pages.

Burgess’ book is nominally, as the title suggests, about Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, a farm girl from New York who disguised herself as a man and left home to get a job as a boatman. On her first trip she met up with recruiters for the 153rd NY and joined on the spot. She served for two years, surviving a smallpox outbreak and two battles only to die of dysentery campaigning in Louisiana.

Burgess herself was unmasked during a reenactment at Antietam and barred by the Park Service from further participation. She sued, and won. This book therefore also is about barriers to women’s full participation in public life, including military service; about the lengths some women will go to in order to get around those barriers; and about their lived experience of doing so. It is, therefore, not just about an uncommon soldier but also more generally about an uncommon woman living an uncommon life. And yet Wakeman was not much different than any other soldier: adventurous, proud of her soldiering abilities, fatalistic about the outcome. She could march and shoot and even fistfight just as well as the other soldiers in her company. Her reasons for enlisting were not dissimilar, either—to have clothes, food, and camaraderie, to make money to send home to her family.

She was never detected. We only know about her service because her family preserved her letters. Burgess has lovingly transcribed these, and her light-handed editing lets Wakeman speak for herself. Because Wakeman is the only woman soldier for whom we have such a contemporary record, Wakeman must needs also speak for the hundreds of others we will never know much, if anything, about. Like Wakeman’s life and service, this is a short book. You can read it in a day, but Wakeman’s spirit will stay with you much longer.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Priceless Little Volume

McCarthy wrote his little book so that details of the daily life of a common soldier should not be lost to history. Given that this was first published in 1882, one expects some (a) racism, (b) damnyankee vitriol, and (c) romanticizing of the Lost Cause. One is not disappointed.

Except for that, however, this is a priceless little volume with precious few wasted words. For the writer, nearly every sentence in it provides at least one valuable fact: Taking research notes on it involves nearly reproducing the book in one's own files.

McCarthy covers everything in minute detail from what the common soldier ate on the march to the kinds of conversations he might have going into winter camp. The book is full of detailed scenes like his description of what happens when an entire regiment descends upon a farmer's well, and what the hapless family's farmyard looks like afterward. These are the kinds of things you will never find elsewhere if you are looking to immerse yourself in the life of a soldier. It's not dry recitation of fact that one might expect from the title, however; it is told with not only an eye for detail, but an ear for dialogue and a great sense of humor as well, so it makes for a very enjoyable read. Sketches by McCarthy's Lieutenant add impact, particularly the poignant swords-to-plowshares thumbnail at the very end.

Belongs on every Civil War reference shelf.

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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Southeastern Civil War Relic Show and Sale

Battle of ChickamaugaImage via WikipediaJust back from cultural immersion in the world of relic hunters. I went in search of research material. It was a little overwhelming: Two floors in the Civic Center exhibit hall, and surprisingly crowded. Who knew that there were so many people from just around here with an interest in the Civil War?

There were a few rednecks and a little racism but not nearly as many or as much as I'd expected. The only in-your-face political messages I saw in two hours were the ubiquitous nObama bumper stickers for sale at one booth and a t-shirt with the CSA battle flag on it and the tag line, "If this flag offends you then you need a history lesson."

I don't think I need a history lesson. But I don't think that the way many Southerners fly that flag is a great idea, either.

But I digress. There were swords--including a genuine 18th-century Scottish basket-weave-handled broadsword that made me briefly swoon for Jamie Fraser--and guns, bits and spurs, bullets and buttons galore, original documents, art, and books. Oh, the books! The books were to die for. There were first editions, including one of Rebel Private Front and Rear selling for $1700!

There were a couple of re-enactors in their uniforms, too. One didn't look too bad but the other was so farby that even a raw recruit like myself could see it. I was embarrassed just to look at him.

I got to meet John Rigdon of fame. Research Online is a must on every genealogist's and military historian's resource list. I had hoped to meet his wife Sylvia Miller, of, as well but she was not able to be there today. I did meet her partner in crime, Tami Gallagher, however. Their area of expertise is in Victorian-era clothing.

Another couple had a glass-topped display with dirt, leaves, pine cones and such just like you'd find on the ground in the woods, with some items they'd dug from a cavalry campsite placed here and there in the duff. That was oddly moving, to think of that cavalryman's pistol lying there for 150 years. . .

As I say, all-in-all it was a little overwhelming, probably because it was my first time, and so I had no idea what to expect and went with no real plan of attack other than that I was hoping to find some talisman to aid me in my writing. In the end, all I bought was a $15 CD of rebel yells. This will make sense in a minute. Bear with me here.

I had read that nobody really knew any more what the rebel yell sounded like, because all we had left was contemporary written descriptions, and that made me terribly sad. But when I Googled it, I found two recordings. One was of one lone veteran who stood at the mike for some researchers after a reunion and gave a few short yips. Another was of two veterans at a reunion at Gettysburg who had participated in a little informal handshaking ceremony with some Yankees over a fence. They, too, gave a few yips for posterity. And that was it. It required no little exercise of the imagination to try to extrapolate that to, say, company level, in order to understand what it would have sounded like on the field of battle.

I remember thinking at the time that somebody oughta record and re-record and re-re-record these guys over each other dozens of times (and for a much longer duration) and maybe, just maybe, we might get from that a faint notion of what it must have sounded like when an entire battle line gave that cry, punctuated with the crack of rifle fire and the boom of the artillery, as they surged out of the trenches.

Well, lo and behold, some guys with the technical know-how had the same idea--and did it! And when you hear it like that, you understand just how inspiring it must have been to the Confederates, and just how terrifying it must have been to the Yankees facing them. Worth every penny. The Museum of the Confederacy puts it out, and it's called "The Rebel Yell Lives". I bought mine from Marc & Jill Ramsey of Owens & Ramsey Historical Booksellers.

Next time I'll have a plan. And I'll allow more time. 

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