- To Rescue My Native Land: The Civil War Letters of William T. Shepherd, First Illinois Light Artillery
There is no shortage of published soldier accounts of the Civil War, including collections of letters and diaries written by troops who served in the western theater of the war. But this interesting, although frightfully overpriced, compilation does offer something new, if only because William T. Shepherd, a private soldier from Wisconsin, experienced the war not only as an artillerist in Company B of the 1st Illinois Light Artillery, but also served as a clerk in the ordnance offices of the Fifteenth Army Corps and the Army of the Tennessee. As such, Shepherd saw a somewhat different war than other soldiers did, particularly since he endured all the mundane aspects of camp life and the invigorating and terrifying realities of combat besides enjoying the calmer duties of a paper pusher who lived outside the battle fray in towns like Memphis and Huntsville. Writing an account of the fight for Fort Donelson to his parents, Shepherd remarked: "This is genuine fighting and is enough to try the patience of anyone—even the most patriotic" (p. 148). Two years later, though, he wrote from Alabama: "I'm usually well and enjoying myself very much, or as much as soldier ought to, considering that he is away from home, its comforts, pleasures, &c, &c" (p. 304).
Shepherd's letters are also valuable for revealing the extent to which personal faith consoled him during his service in the Union army. "I am stronger you know than I look to be," Shepherd assured his father. "And with love for my country & the divine aid of God—power will come" (p. 8). If his letters home are to be believed, it was the strength of his religious beliefs that kept him from gambling, swearing, drinking, seeking out prostitutes, and engaging in other activities that he considered to be sinful. Yet he was not at all troubled by breaking the rules to smuggle home all kinds of enemy souvenirs—including swords and knives and, on one occasion, an artillery ball—that he had picked up on battlefields after the fighting was over. Despite his lust for such trophies of war, Shepherd's repeated assertions of faith reveal how strongly religion influenced ordinary soldiers and provided the means by which they reckoned with the hardships and brutalities that war laid at their feet. After attending a religious service in Wisconsin during a furlough, Shepherd wrote: "The morning sermon was a soul stirring effort proving the holiness of the present war on the union side" (p. 71). Religion comforted the private soldier and confirmed that the cause for which he fought was right and just.
The book's editor has ably annotated the letters by providing useful information in brief chapter introductions and endnotes. Sometimes, though, the annotation is too sparse. For example, one only learns that Shepherd returned home on his first furlough in mid-July 1861 when he himself mentions that fact in a [End Page 575] later letter—a reference that somewhat startles the reader, for it otherwise seems like Shepherd had remained with his company without leave since being mustered in. The editor also admits that seventy of Shepherd's Civil War letters have been omitted from the book "because they often revealed little new information" (p. xx). That may be so, but sometimes repetition is informative, especially when it comes to assessing the boredom that prevailed in the lives of most Civil War soldiers or even when judging how often soldiers felt compelled to write home; at the very least, it would have been useful to know the dates of the letters not included in this compilation.
All in all, this collection of letters gives us a better understanding of how the Civil War was not always the same kind of experience for the soldiers, North and South, who...