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R. R. Gilbert, "High Private." Sketch from the HoustonDaily Post, October 7, 1 899, p. 6. Courtesy the CenterforAmerican History, the University ofTexas at Austin. "Confounding the Wise, ifnot the Devil Himself: RediscoveringForgotten Civil War Humorist R. R. Gilbert By Mary M. Cronin* THROUGHOUT THE U.S. ClVIL WAR, TEXANS, LIKE OTHER CITIZENS NORTH and South, avidly read soldiers' letters published in their newspapers. That correspondence gave readers an intimate connection to the nation's greatest military struggle, while providing cash-strapped editors with free, and often fascinating, news. Indeed, soldiers' correspondence proved so popular that editors, including the Houston Tri-Weekly Telegraph's Edward Cushing, rarely produced a newspaper that did not contain several letters in each issue. Some soldiers became regular contributors, allowing readers to follow their lives—sometimes for years. One such contributor, a self-termed "raw recruit" to the Sixth Texas Infantry, stood out because his letters differed markedly from those ofhis colleagues in uniform. This soldier, who signed his columns as "High Private," brought levity to the war via his humorous sketches, first from Camp Henry McCulloch near Victoria, Texas, in 1862 where he spent months drilling, and later, from various parts of the Trans-Mississippi West when he served as an editor, humorist, and correspondent for the Houston Tri-Weekly Telegraph.1 High Private, in reality, was Rensalear Reed Gilbert, a man who at first glance seemed an unlikely recruit for a Confederate infantry unit. The *Mary Cronin (Lamonica) is an assistant professor ofjournalism at New Mexico State University, Las Cruces. The author would like to thank the Center for American History at die University of Texas at Austin and the staff of the Texas State Archives for their assistance. 1 Virtually all newspapers—Union and Confederate—ran numerous letters each day from soldiercorrespondents . As historian William Styple notes in his introduction, "But war correspondents did not come cheap, and wim limited resources it seemed impossible for the paper to provide interesting news coverage from the war zone." For newspapers to survive, he added, editors, including the New York Sunday Mercury's William Cauldwell, "broadened the definition ofa war correspondent" by using literate soldiers. William B. Styple (ed.), Writing and Fighting the Civil War: Soldier Lettersfrom the Battlefront (Kearny, N.J.: Belle Grove Publishing, 2004), 10. The quote in the title of the paper comes from a column Gilbert wrote on April 15, 1862. He told readers that he would not explain his thinking process, for itwould "Confound the wise, ifnot the devil himself." High Private, Houston Tri-Weekly Telegraph, Apr. 15, 1862, p. 1. Vol. CXI, No. 4 Southwestern Historical QuarterlyApril, 2008 3goSouthwestern Historical QuarterlyApril humorist was, at forty-one years of age, notably older than the average Confederate volunteer. Little else is known about R. R. Gilbert's life prior to 1861 except that he was a Vermonter by birth and a physician by training . No library holds his private papers, he wrote no memoirs, and he died before lengthy obituaries recounting an individual's accomplishments were commonplace.2 He alluded to having a vagabond life prior to his arrival in Texas, noting in an April 15, 1862, letter to the Telegraph that he had "taken my chances in everyzone, except the north frigid." Even the date and location of his birth are in dispute. Federal and state census records listed him as having been born in New York State in 1821. His obituary in the Houston Post listed his birth a year earlier, in 1820, in Enosburg, Vermont. Gilbert most likely was from Vermont, since the town listed in his obituary does not exist in New York, but does in neighboring Vermont.3 Gilbert's motives in moving to Texas are also unknown. He noted in a postwar collection of his war writing that he arrived shortly before the war began. "I remained in the South during the war from choice," he said. "I was not 'caught' here and compelled to remain; for after the State seceded, all who did not want to remain in it were given three months to leave it, and their safety while doing so was guaranteed."4 Despite a lack of information about his life, Gilbert...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9560
Print ISSN
0038-478X
Pages
pp. 388-416
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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