Civil War History 50.2 (2004) 202-203
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The possibility of death lay ahead at the next battle for those marching to war. The men who lived through the battles and recorded their experiences have earned a special place in Civil War literature. The diary of a soldier is often the most powerful perspective of the war. On to Atlanta, the diary of John Hill Ferguson, is filled with insights and observations that make life in Sherman's army come alive.
Ferguson, a Scottish-born immigrant, enlisted with the Illinois Veteran Volunteers at the beginning of the war. In this volume the entries for 1864 and 1865 demonstrate Ferguson's knack for including details that help readers to understand the soldiers' lives. As Ferguson marched with Sherman's army through Georgia he found himself caught in several skirmishes between Sherman and Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood. His description of the fighting will help scholars better understand what the sting of battle was like: "Here the Rebs came about 8 oclock with a heavy skirmish line in front. We opened on them so heavely that they fell back in the field but seemed to advance more heavly on the 17 Corps joining the right of our company, but after some 10 minutes [of] heavy firing the Rebs also fell back from their [position]" (80).
Ferguson's account helps answer what the great scholars have been trying to understand for more than a century. What was the life of a soldier like in the Union and Confederate armies? Ferguson's own writings help explain exactly what life was like in Sherman's army. We read about every skirmish, nearly every meal, and some of the most explicit descriptions of a soldier's daily life. There is a larger question, however, surrounding Ferguson's tenure in the army that is not addressed. What was the war like for such a recent immigrant to America? By 1864 Ferguson was comfortable in his new identity as an American, but what was it like becoming an American while in the midst of the Civil War? Because we are not privy to the entries during the first two years of the war, we never understand that part of Ferguson's experience. [End Page 202]
This work also suffers from a simple problem that will make it less effective to non-scholars—the lack of a strong editorial voice. Ellison has decided to leave the readers on their own, leaving all explanations to the notes, placed inconveniently in the back of the book. There are no introductions to place Ferguson's lively words in context with what is actually happening during the war. In the endnotes, inaccuracies in many of Ferguson's conclusions are pointed out. If the reader is unversed in the war they are left with Ferguson's often mistaken conclusions.
Ferguson's diaries will prove very important to scholars of the war, adding a much-needed human touch to the perception of Sherman's army. For the casual reader it will prove less useful without first consulting other secondary works such as Bell Wiley's Life of Billy Yank and Richard McMurry's Atlanta 1864.As for Ferguson's entries for 1861, 1862, and 1863, they lay waiting for a historian to make sense of his experience as the immigrant in another nation's civil war.