Well Satisfied with My Position
The Civil War Journal of Spencer Bonsall
Publication Year: 2007
Trained as a druggist when he was in his early twenties, Bonsall traveled the world, spent eight years on a tea plantation in India, and settled in Philadelphia, where he worked in the city surveyor’ s office. But in March 1862, when he was in his mid-forties, the lure of serving his country on the battlefield led Bonsall to join the 81st Pennsylvania Infantry as a hospital steward.
Bonsall enjoyed his life with the Union army at first, comparing bivouacking in the woods to merely picnicking on a grand scale. “ We are about as jolly a set of old bachelors as can be found in Virginia,” Bonsall wrote. But his first taste of the aftermath of battle at Fair Oaks and the Seven Days’ Battles in Virginia changed his mind about the joys of soldiering— though he never lost his zeal for the Union cause.
Bonsall details the camp life of a soldier from firsthand experience, outlines the engagements of the 81st, and traces the Battle of Fredericksburg and the Peninsula Campaign. He records facts not available elsewhere about camp conditions, attitudes toward Union generals and Confederate soldiers, and troop movements.
From the end of June to late October 1862, Bonsall’ s illness kept him from writing in his journal. He picked up the record again in December 1862, just before the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia, in which the Union suffered a staggering 10,200 casualties and the 81st Pennsylvania lost more than half its men. He vividly describes the bloody aftermath. Bonsall’ s horse was shot out from underneath him at the battle of Gettysburg, injuring him seriously and ending his military career. Although he was listed as “ sick in hospital” on the regiment’ s muster rolls, he was labeled a deserter in the U.S. Army records. Indeed, after recovery from his injuries, Bonsall walked away from the army to resume life in Philadelphia with his wife and child.
Published for the first time, Bonsall’ s journal offers an unusually personal glimpse into the circumstances and motives of a man physically ruined by the war. Seventeen illustrations, including some drawn by Bonsall himself, help bring this narrative to life.
Published by: Southern Illinois University Press
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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication
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Spencer Bonsall’s wartime journal, which he sent home to his wife in batches, is filled with anecdotes about camp life and battle experiences. Yet at times it reads more like the travelogue of someone on holiday rather than an account of war. He clearly had an itch to roam and spent much of his spare time wandering the Virginia...
Introduction: Spencer Bonsall’s Life and Times to 1863
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The Civil War was America’s most devastating conflict, but, fortunately for historians, it took place at a time of increasing literacy. It has been estimated that 90 percent of all whites in the North were literate at the time of the war, a rate equaled only in Sweden and Denmark.1 So among the richest primary resources available...
Peninsula Campaign: May 6 through June 22, 1862
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Spencer Bonsall was a member of the 81st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, recruited under James Miller in October of 1861. Six companies were from Philadelphia and four from Carbon and Luzerne counties. From early May to mid-June 1862 the 81st saw significant action, slowly advancing toward...
Editors’ Note on the Interlude of June to December 1862
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The gap in the journal record is likely explained by the fact that from June 30 through the end of October, Bonsall is listed as “Absent. Sick in Genl. Hospital.”1 While the nature of his illness is not stated, he is reported back with his regiment by November, though his subsequent departure for Washington from Philadelphia suggests...
Fredericksburg: December 5 to December 16, 1862
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The 81st Pennsylvania Infantry was in winter quarters until December 11, when it was ordered to march on Fredericksburg. On the 12th it crossed the Rappahannock River, where it remained wharf-side for the next twenty-four hours. The next morning it moved up Front Street and at ten o’clock moved into action. Reaching Sophia Street under heavy artillery fire, ...
Windmill Point and Falmouth: January 6 to March 26, 1863
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We at present lead as monotonous a life as it is possible to conceive. “Surgeons Call” every morning at 7 o’clock, then breakfast, reports all made out and sent in by 9 o’clock, and for the balance of the day nothing to do but loll about our tents and read newspapers, as they are about the only things we can get to read...
Editors’ Postscript on March 1863 through War’s End
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The 81st Pennsylvania did not move until April 26, 1863, when it was ordered to serve as an advance guard along with the 5th New Hampshire. The brigade advanced toward Chancellorsville, where it relieved a portion of the V Corps. The 81st was engaged throughout the battle of Chancellorsville (May 2–3, 1863), suffering sixty-two...
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Although Spencer ends his journal on March 26, 1863, presumably never to return to it again, the story by no means ends there. Earlier in March he had been relieved of duty as hospital steward of the II Corps and sent to the First Division Hospital under the charge of Surgeon Charles Gray.1 While serving there, he requested...
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Page Count: 160
Publication Year: 2007