- All’s for the Best: The Civil War Reminiscences and Letters of Daniel W. Sawtelle, Eighth Maine Volunteer Infantry
In 1912, Daniel Sawtelle returned from the national encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic with renewed interest in his war memories. But when he read Civil War histories, Sawtelle found epics that overlooked the experiences of common soldiers. Where were the accounts that depicted what Sawtelle and his comrades had shared in the GAR? This neglect inspired the veteran to put his war in print. Ninety years later, Sawtelle's project bears fruition as an informative volume in the "Voices of the Civil War" series.
From the northern woods of Maine, Sawtelle enlisted in the Eighth Maine Volunteer Infantry in February 1862. Except for participating in the March 1863 expedition to Jacksonville, Florida, Sawtelle and his regiment spent most of the first two years' of service along South Carolina's coastline. Here Sawtelle suffered from a near-fatal case of typhoid that would debilitate him throughout his life. Nevertheless, he reenlisted in March 1864 (both for the cause and for a furlough) and fought through the grueling campaigns for Petersburg and Richmond.
The book presents Sawtelle's perspective on these experiences through two [End Page 231] lenses, his reminiscences completed fifty years after the war and seventy-five of his wartime letters. The counterpoint between these two records is a boon for historians interested in the construction of memory. Moreover, the distinctions between Sawtelle's accounts will caution scholars who uniformly favor wartime evidence over postwar documents. The memoirs not only offer a clearer narrative of the conflict but also include more details about combat, disease, the soldier's need for psychological distance, and war's destructiveness. Whether Sawtelle censored these distressing topics in letters to his family or needed time before he could consider the issues fully, it is intriguing that the veteran's writing reveals more than the soldier's correspondence.
Sawtelle's opinion of Southerners warrants special attention. His changing views towards African Americans pervade the text. When he first encountered black people, Sawtelle considered them humorous and inferior. Though he retained some prejudice, over time he respected blacks' resistance to slavery, their military service, and their eagerness to learn. "Call me a fanatic," he wrote his sister, "but I cannot help admireing [sic] a people that can rise in so short a time and do as well as they have done" (226). As his esteem for black Southerners rose, Sawtelle's view of white Southerners diminished. He found them to be "a hotheaded class of people" whose hierarchical society "was so different from what I had been brought up to believe, that all men were equal as long as they behaved properly" (196-97). Confederates' stubborn defiance and unconquerable mentality convinced Sawtelle to "fight the Devil with his own weapons," and he became a sharpshooter to "get every Rebel we could" (90).
Editor Peter Buckingham skillfully contextualizes the narrative and addresses current historiography. In particular, Buckingham contrasts Sawtelle's maturation as a soldier with the petty factionalism among his officers. Illustrations, photographs, and maps present the cast of characters and illuminate the armies' maneuvers. All's for the Best fulfills its series' objective by offering a "new" voice that wanted to express itself long ago.