- Don’t Hurry Me Down to Hades: The Civil War in the Words of Those Who Lived It by Susannah J. Ural
In Don’t Hurry Me Down to Hades, a title inspired by a line in book 7 of Homer’s Iliad, Susannah J. Ural uses a series of untapped primary sources to create a portrait of the lived experience of those caught up in the Civil War. [End Page 171]
Ural blends social and military history as she chronicles the lives of a colorful cast of characters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. Don’t Hurry Me Down to Hades is organized chronologically, offering readers a “glimpse into the concerns and hopes of a wartime family, revealing not only the soldier’s thoughts, but also those of his family at home” (206). Ural uses the letters that James Rodgers Loughridge (Fourth Texas Infantry) exchanged with his wife, Mary, along with those of Andrew Erskine (also of the Fourth Texas Infantry) and his wife to highlight how families dealt with the pain of separation. Loughridge survived the war and eventually served in the state assembly. Erskine did not come home; Ann Erskine was a widow after the second day at Antietam. The letters of Vicksburg, Mississippi, attorney William Nugent show that there were many patriotic but sober southerners who knew that the conflict was going to be “long & bloody” (34). In addition to the letters and diaries of ordinary soldiers, Ural devotes considerable attention to those of the families of Ulysses S. Grant, William Seward, and Mary Todd Lincoln. The First Lady’s correspondence with her relatives often caused her husband considerable embarrassment and led to suspicions that she might be in league with the enemy.
Ural describes a massive snowball fight that broke out in the Confederate winter encampment at Fredericksburg, Virginia, to illustrate what she sees as a “feverish rejection of a melancholy” in the ranks of the ordinary soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia (97). In between snowballs fights, some soldiers, including Tally Simpson, took time to compose lengthy Christmas letters home to loved ones. Simpson longed for his family in South Carolina, but he also needed an outlet for his grief. He was having trouble processing the death all around him. “If all the dead … could be heaped in one pile and all the wounded be gathered together in one group, the pale faces of the dead and the groans of the wounded would send such a thrill of horror through the hearts of the originators of this war that their very souls would rack with such pain that they would prefer being dead and in torment than to stand before God,” wrote Simpson (98).
Ural’s fast-paced and well-written narrative will captivate some, but this reviewer found it frustrating that no attempt was made to connect her cast of characters with scholarly work in the field. For example, in his introduction to the letters of Union soldier Charles Harvey Brewster, David Blight reminds us that the “emotions and ideas represented” in soldiers’ letters often “range from naïveté to mature realism, from romantic idealism to sheer terror, and from self-pity to enduring devotion.”1 Ural’s collection seems to bear out Blight’s observations. In terms of conveying the “sheer terror” of war, Brewster has few rivals. He was engaged in some of [End Page 172] the bloodiest battles of the war, and he eventually was able to write about the horrors that he witnessed and the shattering of the idyllic conception of war that had gripped him when he volunteered in April 1861. James Loughridge, one of Ural’s main figures, was lucky enough to survive some of the horrors that Brewster described. As he told his wife, he ended the second day of fighting at Gettysburg with a promotion; all the officers were dead. Here an interesting comparison could be made about how the two described the conflict...