- Journey to the Wilderness: War, Memory, and a Southern Family’s Civil War Letters by Frye Gaillard
If there is any genre of book that seems to consistently fall short of its potential in American historiography, it is the published collection of Civil War letters. We seem to have thousands of these volumes floating [End Page 370] about, each loaded with buried nuggets of golden quotes surrounded by layers of tedious recounting of the monotony of camp life in bad grammar, all introduced by authors with rather formulaic overviews of the progression of the Civil War. While these books have their place as reference resources regardless of their eloquence and have certainly been invaluable to generations of historians in understanding the conflict through the eyes of the men who fought it, as narratives they usually leave much to be desired. Frye Gaillard’s provocative and refreshingly brief book, Journey to the Wilderness, happily rises above that stereotype. It is an enlightening and readable chronological story focusing on one family’s experience during and memory of one of our nation’s defining events.
Gaillard’s success in weaving fragmented correspondence and memories together into a compelling narrative should come as no surprise, as he is currently Writer-in-Residence at the University of South Alabama and author of nearly two dozen acclaimed books, including Cradle of Freedom: Alabama and the Movement that Changed America (Tuscaloosa, 2004) and The Books That Mattered: A Reader’s Memoir (Montgomery, 2012). While this is his first foray into Civil War history specifically, he has a wealth of experience in writing about the cultural heritage of the South in general. He is ably assisted in the undertaking via a superb foreword by colleague Steven Trout, director of the Center for the Study of War and Memory at USA, which sets the tone for the book by asking how the grisly reality of the war could have so long been downplayed in place of more romantic remembrances.
Gaillard features a carefully selected and closely edited batch of his family’s correspondence in the book which he combines with his own lucid commentary, providing both historical context and background on the way the experiences of the writers were collectively remembered by their descendants. In the letters he finds many of the usual expressions of initial optimism for the war as some sort of grand adventure fade into a grim determination to survive its horrors; evidence of both the thrill of participation in epoch–defining events and the drudgery of camp life; attempts to deal with separation from loved ones and heartrending loss; bitter racism; and even cowardice. While this is the Civil War we as historians are familiar with today, as Gaillard candidly observes, it is [End Page 371] not necessarily the Civil War he remembered hearing about as a child. Gaillard notes that his generation (he was born in 1946) was perhaps the last to be raised with stories of unequivocal southern gallantry during the affair but also the first to be forced to square that veneration with the glaring inequities in southern history forcefully brought to light by the Civil Rights movement. The experience of being caught in that cultural whiplash challenged his notions of what the South he grew up in and was taught to love and respect was all about, indeed by extension what he himself was all about, and prompted this objective look into what it was really like to live through the Civil War.
The unusually compelling result both sheds light on the lives of otherwise largely forgotten individuals and, on a small scale, illuminates how southerners’ visceral connection with the war has often blurred the lines between history and regional identity. As Gaillard thoughtfully illustrates, that blend of past and present has been a powerful force in southern culture for a long time and continues to have meaning to us today. Journey to the Wilderness is an entertaining and insightful book that those interested in the Civil War and the broader...