- Reviewed by
The story of the Civil War, an era of prolific letter writers and wordsmiths, is wholly incomplete without the vantage points and voices of common people. Donald C. Maness and H. Jason Combs have contributed another first-rate published primary source that is certain to appeal to amateur and professional historians interested in Civil War Ohio and the Ohio Valley, wartime combat operations in Kentucky and Tennessee, and the western theater in general. Most notably, however, this volume of over one hundred letters, mostly from William McKnight to his wife, Samaria, underscores the centrality of personal correspondence and the written word to ordinary [End Page 290] families and common soldiers and offers a revealing portrait of the day-to-day activities of a Union soldier.
Having settled in the southeast corner of Ohio in 1836 after emigrating from Scotland via Canada (where William was born), the McKnights experienced the movement and relocation so common to the Middle Western families before the Civil War. A blacksmith and family man, William McKnight enlisted in September 1862 and was promoted to sergeant two months later, then achieved the rank of second lieutenant in April 1864, before being mortally wounded at Cynthiana, Kentucky, later that year. As part of the 7th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, nicknamed the "River Regiment," McKnight saw action in central Kentucky and eastern Tennessee and reacted with anger as Gen. John Hunt Morgan and his Confederate raiders invaded southern Ohio and passed through his hometown. His letters explicate his thoughts on skirmishes and battles, terrain and the southern landscape, and a host of ideas related to soldiering.
McKnight's observations illuminate the historical value of Civil War letters. As McKnight recalls daily life and explains his war experience in terms of service, faith, responsibility, duty, and family, readers are reminded of the various ways historians from Bell I. Wiley to James M. McPherson have interpreted the letters of common soldiers. It is within this vein of soldier studies that one of the few minor criticisms of Maness and Combs's work arises: its analysis is sometimes wanting in context. For example, what does the arc of McKnight's letters to his wife and his descriptions of "home" reveal about companionate marriage or the gendered nature of the war experience?
But we shall let such questions fall to other historians. This book, rich with obliging general and chapter introductions, images, appendixes, and endnotes, is not intended to be a full-scale biography or a general work of history. It is a personal primary source account and its historical utility lies in both the singularity of McKnight's story and the representativeness of his experiences. Ultimately, McKnight's letters prove worthy of publication. Maness and Combs's carefully edited work succeeds in its stated goal of capturing "the human side of war" and does historians a great service in their unending quest to better understand the humanity and complexity of our nation's most violent era (3). [End Page 291]