- THE PRINTER’S KISS: The Life and Letters of a Civil War Newspaperman and His Family ed. by Patricia A. Donohoe
There is no shortage of published first-person accounts of the Civil War, and researchers working on the period can find letters and diaries written from a multitude of points of view. Into this thriving industry comes The Printer’s Kiss, which recounts the wartime experiences of Will Tomlinson, an Ohio newspaperman, and his family. The Printer’s Kiss is edited by Patricia Donohoe, a descendant of Tomlinson’s who found a cache of letters in a cracker tin in a hall closet and then supplemented the collection through eBay purchases. Although The Printer’s Kiss emphasizes Tomlinson’s position as a newspaperman, this collection focuses less on Tomlinson’s work as a printer and publisher than on the details of day-to-day life in Ohio during the Civil War.
As revealed in the letters, Tomlinson presents a useful case study of varied opinions toward the war. A Democrat who supported the Union despite his opposition to Lincoln, Tomlinson’s letters bear witness to the divided politics and loyalties among Ohioans. Although Tomlinson served briefly in the Union army, he was relieved of his duties in 1861 because of his involvement in the arrest and shooting of three suspected “bushwackers,” Confederate guerrillas who roamed the countryside raiding Union households and troops. After being dismissed from the army, Tomlinson’s most substantial contribution to the war effort came in his newspaper work through publishing, reporting, offering editorialized accounts of recent events, and criticizing the administration of the war. Because Tomlinson moved where he could find work, and was often away from the family for long stretches, he left behind a substantial correspondence with his wife Eliza, who remained with their children in Ripley, Ohio. The letters between Tomlinson and Eliza bring to life the very real threat posed by encroaching Confederate troops, both official and otherwise, and Eliza’s sense of vulnerability to attack. In writing to her husband while he was serving in the army, Eliza confides that, “if they should come upon us, I know not where we would flee for safety. I rather guess we will have to stay here and take what comes. The enemy would be entirely destitute of manhood to slay a parcel of women and children, so we will have to trust to their magnanimity for our safety” (122).
In editing this collection, Donohue has painstakingly researched the historical context, including events and people mentioned in the letters. At times, the explanations framing the letters threaten to overwhelm the narrative offered by the letters themselves, especially in the early sections when detailed information slows down the pacing. Likewise, it is not always clear that the editorial glossing adds anything to letters that in many cases speak for themselves. For example, the editor’s commentary on a letter describing a pair of canaries that Tomlinson sent as a birthday present to his daughter injects a sentimentality that reaches beyond the language of the text: “He may also have hoped that Eliza would recall times when their love for each other was more like a robust melody than a long, plodding march” (147). This may or may not be the case, but it is not clear that such speculation adds to our understanding of the exchange. [End Page 174]
On the whole, however, this volume makes a welcome addition to the body of published Civil War narratives by offering a revealing view of wartime life in Ohio. Almost as interesting as the letters themselves is the story of how these letters were cherished and passed down within a family and finally made available to the public.