Mezurek on Bisbee, 'Captaining the Corps d'Afrique: The Civil War Diaries and Letters of John Newton Chamberlin'

Author: 
John Bisbee, ed.
Reviewer: 
Kelly D. Mezurek

John Bisbee, ed. Captaining the Corps d'Afrique: The Civil War Diaries and Letters of John Newton Chamberlin. Jefferson: McFarland, 2016. 211 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4766-6449-1.

Reviewed by Kelly D. Mezurek (Walsh) Published on H-War (April, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53241

In Captaining the Corps d’Afrique: The Civil War Diaries and Letters of John Newton Chamberlin, John Bisbee shares a selection of his great-grandfather’s wartime writings currently held in private collections. Born in Vermont, John Newton Chamberlin was a teacher in Cayuga County, New York, when he joined the 75th New York Infantry in September 1861. He served as a noncommissioned officer for two years, then transferred to the 3rd LA Engineers Corps d’Afrique, later reorganized as the 97th United Stated Colored Infantry (USCI). Chamberlin served as a captain until mustering out of the army in April 1866. He was away from his company for several months during the late summer of 1865 while on detached duty administering amnesty oaths in Alabama, and then that autumn when he took an extended leave of absence to visit his family. Chamberlin’s accounts therefore cover the entirety of the war, and a short time beyond, while providing insight into the diverse experiences of a Northeasterner who spent most of his service in the Deep South.

We have few published collections of letters and diaries written by white officers of the United States Colored Troops (USCT). While there exist a significant number of reminiscences and edited memoirs, other than Richard M. Reid’s Practicing Medicine in a Black Regiment: The Civil War Diary of Burt G. Wilder, 55th Massachusetts (2010) and Thank God My Regiment an African One: The Civil War Diary of Colonel Nathan W. Daniels (1998) edited by C. P. Weaver, there are scant published wartime writings available. As a result, most of the firsthand accounts of those who led black troops during the conflict are limited to references within monographs, book chapters, and journal articles, and those are often the same few repeated excerpts. Chamberlin’s writings therefore have the potential to significantly expand our access to white officers’ contemporary experiences and reflections about leading African American soldiers.

The book contains an introduction, eighteen chapters, and an epilogue. Bisbee opens each chapter with additional background information that he expands upon between the selected letters and diary entries. There are also some annotations and photographs. Additionally, appendices include a discussion of the provenance of Chamberlin’s writings, a list of letters between the officer and his future wife, and military documents related to his service in the 75th New York and the 97th USCI. The edited volume does not include all known 124 letters written to and received by family and friends, or all diary entries from 1861 to 1865; Bisbee selected passages based on “their relevance to Chamberlin’s life during the Civil War and his views of it” (p. 3). He explains that his choices “reveal Chamberlin to be well-read, observant, and articulate, as well as a man of moral principle, strong religious faith, and intelligence, with a deep sense of duty and patriotism” (p. 1). The writings included do provide more than journal entries related to weather and troop movements; they are reflective, insightful commentaries on people, slavery, and politics. They also illustrate his family relationships, a growing intimacy with a woman he had known since childhood, and his plans for after the war. The letters are detailed and descriptive, sometimes lyrical. Chamberlin’s writings paint a vivid picture of his surroundings, and while his entries show his empathy for those suffering in the South, they provide few clues to help explain why in 1880 he made the decision to take his own life.

Unfortunately, most of the selections in the volume are like a myriad of other published officer’s accounts, regardless of which soldiers they led. When Chamberlin does reference his role in the USCT it is often about how it related to larger issues such as slavery and the preservation of the Union; he makes few direct references to the men under his command. The soldiers participated in a few skirmishes, but the 97th had little opportunity to participate in battle. These men spent their time as laborers who removed sunken boats, felled trees, built forts, constructed dams, and assembled pontoon bridges. The toll of these efforts went mostly unrecognized by Chamberlin, although he continued to write about the men with whom he had served earlier in the war. In a June 1865 letter he remarked how one-third of the New Yorkers in Co. D “sleep in honored graves on the battle fields of the Union” (p. 119), but he remained largely quiet about the soldiers who died under his leadership in the USCT.

Although Bisbee provides valuable context for general readers, there are several problems. He sometimes makes claims without offering evidence, or seemingly with a limited understanding of military service. For example, he concludes that Chamberlin’s “black soldiers had served him long and faithfully” due to the length of time that the men remained in his company. Did they have a choice? And in the same paragraph, “a majority of his soldiers survived the battles and hardships of war and remained loyal” (p. 140). Loyal to whom? And how was that loyalty demonstrated? A few entries somewhat contradict the author’s assessment of Chamberlin. For example, the officer’s “moral principle” is challenged by entries in which Chamberlin describes how he allowed his soldiers to forage against orders, how he personally removed private possessions from abandoned homes, and instead of hiring a personal servant, which many white officers did, he had one of his soldiers cook and clean for him. In the preface, the author describes 103 letters written or received, but in appendix A there are 124. And a more significant concern is why did Bisbee not consult (or if he did, why no mention of or citations from) regimental records or Chamberlin’s military service records or pension file. That might have helped prevent claims such as “apparently for a while he was provost marshal” (p. 129).

This volume will be of great interest to a more general audience and to historians who seek primary accounts left by a noncommissioned officer who later served in a commissioned leadership role. Bisbee’s selections offer readers informative and interesting insights into how, as he correctly claims, one mid-nineteenth-century New York citizen, and occasionally his correspondents, observed, assessed, and experienced the Civil War. But while the passages clearly demonstrate that Chamberlin continued to express “vestiges of the racist views of his time,” it is not so obvious that “he demonstrated a growing appreciation of his soldiers” (p. 5). Possibly the information is included in Chamberlin’s letters and diaries, but readers who choose this book based on its title will find that too few of the shared writings focus on the specific experiences of commanding black troops, especially those assigned as engineering corps and to occupational duties.

Citation: Kelly D. Mezurek. Review of Bisbee, John, ed., Captaining the Corps d'Afrique: The Civil War Diaries and Letters of John Newton Chamberlin. H-War, H-Net Reviews. April, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53241

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