- Memoirs of a Dutch Mudsill: The “War Memories” of John Henry Otto, Captain, Company D, 21st Regiment Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry
To anyone who doubts the veracity of Napoleon's famous quip that "an army marches on its stomach," John Henry Otto lays those doubts to rest. Otto was a German immigrant to Wisconsin who kept a journal during the Civil War that he expanded around 1890 into a long reminiscence for his sons. In spite of shaky spelling and grammar, Otto recounts in an amusing, hearty style fighting at Perryville, Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, and on Sherman's march, finishing with the grand review. The chief value of his work derives from Otto's perspective as a knowledgeable outsider. Otto was both an immigrant and a professional soldier. He had enlisted in the Prussian army at eighteen, fought in several battles, and risen to the rank of lieutenant and company command, before deserting to find a civilian life. In 1854, he settled in Appleton, Wisconsin, where he married, had five children, and set up a cabinetmaking business.
Offered a captaincy, he chose to enlist as a private. Otto was not alone as a German in his regiment, but unlike some other Wisconsin regiments, the Germans formed a minority in the 21st. He experienced some animosity for his foreignness; one suspects that this may have been at least partially due to insecurity in the face of his military experience. The editors' otherwise admirable introduction and annotations provide little context or suggested readings regarding the German or immigrant experience in the Civil War.
That most volunteers in the Civil War lacked the faintest notion of how to be a soldier is a commonplace. Otto usefully comments on many individual instances of incompetence, though sometimes without much explanation of the professional [End Page 209] improvement. For obvious reasons, these comments disappear a year or so into the war. Otto's superiors leaned heavily upon him for his experience, yet he seemed to have shunned most opportunities for advancement. This keeps the narrative's perspective close to the ground, though he does add some hindsight strategic commentary based on his postwar reading. Otto's authentic compassion for his fellow soldiers comes out in his many anecdotes of foraging for food or sneaking alcoholic beverages into camp. He had unbridled contempt for anyone who profited from war or who broke his code of military propriety, devoting special vituperation for his first captain, cowards in his company, abolitionists who shirked service, and Generals Halleck and Bragg.
The volume suffers from some repetitiveness, as all such volumes do, endlessly discussing the food, weather, and health problems of his company, accidentally communicating military boredom at times. The editors thankfully selected the best bits for the volume, amounting to about half of the total manuscript. Some of the problems of repetitiveness lift toward the end, where his description of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga campaigns take on new verve. As Sherman's march develops, so do his descriptions of the South and the Southerners his company met, giving his narrative heightened human value. His description of the end of the war is excellent.
As to the higher themes of the war, like most memoirs from the last two decades of the nineteenth century, Otto prefers tales of warfare, manhood, and camaraderie to discussions of the purposes of the war or of slavery. He never mentions why he or his comrades fought in the war, immigrant or native, and mentions race only when sneering at Confederate pretensions of liberty when his company passed slave markets or received food from plantation slaves. One particularly interesting moment occurs in Union-controlled territory early in the war, when his brigade rebelled against two slave-catchers who were hunting for two escaped slaves hiding with his company. His regiment was ordered under arrest for refusing to turn over the slaves. That night, the slave-catchers' homes were torched, and...