- Lt. Spalding in Civil War Louisiana: A Union Officer's Humor, Privilege, and Ambition by Michael D. Pierson
As thousands of Civil War histories have been written, why would someone write about a junior officer in the Union army who was killed on his first day of [End Page 173] significant combat, especially since much of what we know about him is contained in a single seven-page letter? Michael D. Pierson provides his answer to this question in Lt. Spalding in Civil War Louisiana: A Union Officer's Humor, Privilege, and Ambition, where he uses Stephen F. Spalding's letter as a corrective to some current trends in Civil War historiography. Pierson argues that we often wax nostalgic about the character of Civil War soldiers. While some, such as Rufus Kinsley, were indeed noble souls, others, like Stephen Spalding, were deeply flawed but fascinating human beings.
Much of the book is structured around issues of class, race, masculinity, and rank. Unlike those who consciously suppressed marginalized groups, Spalding had such an entrenched sense of personal privilege that he abused others with hardly a second thought. In Spalding's letter, we learn that he threw a chair at his black valet for no particular reason, had strong appetites for both whiskey and prostitutes, promoted men who fit his ethnic sensibilities, and punished men who committed crimes similar to his own.
Because of the limited information regarding Spalding's life, Pierson carefully sorts certainties regarding Spalding from well-informed historical interpretation. Regarding the klatter, Pierson relies on secondary historical sources, gender studies, Freudian psychology, religious studies, slave narratives, and other forms of American literature, which makes the book ideal for teaching students the craft of writing history. For example, Pierson uses muster rolls, military transcripts, and company histories to determine Spalding's whereabouts at specific times during the war. As it turns out, Spalding fabricated part of his military record, claiming he enlisted immediately after the attack on Fort Sumter when he actually joined weeks later. Spalding's résumé padding created the perception that he had more military experience than he actually did, thus increasing his chances for promotion—which Spalding regarded as his birthright. Pierson contextualizes such dishonesty by noting that both Herman Melville and Mark Twain wrote that personal misrepresentation was common in antebellum America.
Another fascinating discussion concerns Spalding's death in 1863. George Carpenter, who wrote a history of the Eighth Vermont, stated that before the attack on Port Hudson, Spalding told friends that "'I shall be at the head of my regiment to-morrow'" and that "'I shall not spend another night with you'" (p. 111). After considering the possibility that Spalding had a premonition, Pierson offers a different explanation, noting that Spalding's lack of combat experience impeded his chances for promotion. For Spalding, the only solution was to demonstrate bravery by leading the charge against entrenched Confederates at Port Hudson. The result would be either promotion or death, and Spalding was ready to take that chance. Unfortunately for Spalding, he was fatally shot while discharging his weapon.
In his conclusion, Pierson introduces fragments of two other letters that Spalding wrote. These letters, sent to relatives, did not have the same joking, somewhat ribald tone as the missive sent to James Peck. Pierson notes that the socially appropriate letters that Civil War soldiers sent to relatives often became treasured heirlooms; letters such as the one Spalding sent to Peck were more likely "to find their way into people's fireplaces" (p. 136). With this in mind, [End Page 174] Pierson's discussion based on a relatively unknown soldier's candid letter certainly broadens our understanding of Civil War soldiers' lives.