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Reviewed by:
  • Civil War Witnesses and Their Booksed. by Gary W. Gallagher and Stephen Cushman
  • Jennifer M. Murray
Civil War Witnesses and Their Books New Perspectives on Iconic TextsGary W. Gallagher and Stephen Cushman, editors. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2021. 312 pp., ISBN: 9780807175804 (hardcover), $45.00.

Published in 2019, Gary W. Gallagher and Stephen Cushman's Civil War Writing: New Perspectives on Iconic Textsprovides a collection of essays that explore, as the title suggests, landmark diaries and memoirs civilian and soldier participants or observers. Civil War Witnessesis a continuation of the literary tradition of the Civil War, offering a collection of eight essays, written by a solid line-up of historians that includes well-known individuals, like James Longstreet and Elizabeth Bacon Custer, as well as lesser-known or cited observers, like Maria Lydig Daly and Phoebe Yates Pember.

Several essays in this volume consider familiar individuals and texts, among them Elizabeth Varon's essay on James Longstreet's From Manassas to Appomattox, Cecily Zander's exploration of Elizabeth Bacon Custer's memoirs, Stephen Cushman's essay on George McClellan, Keith Harris's essay on Hardtack and Coffee, and Gary Gallagher's study of Walter H. Taylor.

Varon's essay opens the volume with a detailed discussion of James Longstreet's crafting of his iconic memoir. Varon seeks to decentralize Gettysburg and the ensuing discussions of the general as a scapegoat and instead highlight the centrality of Appomattox. In considering the memoir's reception, Varon argues that Longstreet succeeded, she concludes, "in fashioning himself as a prophet of sectional reconciliation between the North and South" (12). Gallagher also writes about a Confederate officer as his essay on Walter Taylor closes out the volume. Rather than provide a summary of Taylor's two iconic books, both fundamental to the perpetuation of the Lost Cause, Gallagher explores the ways Taylor influenced Gen. Robert E. Lee's reputation. Indeed, Gallagher argues that no officer in Lee's army other than the Confederate [End Page 86]artillerist Edward Porter Alexander "excels Taylor in evidential and interpretive value for modern readers" (263).

Zander's work on Elizabeth Bacon Custer, the widow of George Custer, who worked slavishly to defend her husband's reputation, encourages us to view Custer "not as a professional widow, or mythmaker, but as an often-perceptive observer" (253). In doing so, Zander suggests that historians will gain a better, fuller understanding of the western frontier and its role in the long Civil War era. Cushman offers an essay on George McClellan, the only Federal officer explicitly considered in the volume. After briefly mentioning two monuments erected in the general's honor, Cushman turns his attention to McClellan's Own Story, the posthumous memoir published in 1887. He identifies three themes prevalent in the book, including McClellan's discussion of God, his employment of particular language to identify turning points in the war, and his affection for his soldiers. Keith Harris offers a consideration of a landmark text, Hardtack and Coffee, authored by John Billings, a corporal in the Tenth Massachusetts Light Artillery Battery. Harris considers how generations of historians have relied on this text for intimate details of the day-to-day life of Civil War soldiers. Often overlooked by historians, however, were the ways Billings considered race and emancipation and directly addressed the sectional strife. Indeed, Harris concludes, "Those who seek to understand the sentiments—both sectional and national—expressed by Union soldiers should situate Hardtack and Coffeein the larger field of Civil War memory scholarship" (209).

Other essays offer explorations of perhaps lesser-known individuals or lesser-utilized texts. These essays include William Blair's study of Henry Wilson's Rise and Fall of the Slave Power, Sarah Gardner's consideration of Phoebe Yates Pember, a Southern nurse, and J. Matthew Gallman's treatment of Northern civilian Maria Lydig Daly.

Blair's essay on Henry Wilson offers a study of "one of the most significant Civil War books that few people will ever read" (56). In Rise and Fall of the Slave Power, Wilson articulated a view of slavery that emphasized the brutality of the institution, advocated improved treatment of Native...