Jordan on Gallagher and Cushman, 'Civil War Writing: New Perspectives on Iconic Texts'

Gary W. Gallagher, Stephen Cushman, eds.
Brian M. Jordan

Gary W. Gallagher, Stephen Cushman, eds. Civil War Writing: New Perspectives on Iconic Texts. Conflicting Worlds: New Dimensions of the American Civil War Series. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2019. 312 pp. $48.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8071-7024-3.

Reviewed by Brian M. Jordan (Sam Houston State University) Published on H-CivWar (August, 2019) Commissioned by G. David Schieffler (Crowder College)

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Gary W. Gallagher and Stephen Cushman have assembled a magnificent collection of essays that interrogate memoirs, diaries, and narratives penned by a few of the Civil War’s most frequently cited participant observers (and one observer who purported to be a participant). Each essay yields important new insights into the writer, his or her writing process, and the literary legacies of our nation’s defining conflict. Stemming from papers delivered at the John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History at the University of Virginia, “this is the first volume of an ongoing work-in-progress” devoted to understanding “significant writing” by Civil War Americans. The editors acknowledge that the volume under review treats mostly Confederate subjects and military officers; they pledge, however, that future efforts will “complement” this collection with more diverse coverage (p. 5).      

Though the essays are of uniformly high quality, several stand out for their novel approach and deft analysis. Among these is Elizabeth R. Varon’s lead essay on the African American veteran Joseph T. Wilson’s The Black Phalanx. Published in 1887, the book “was the culmination of [the] more than twenty-year battle” its author “waged over Civil War memory” (p. 15). Varon reads Wilson’s tome, “the most comprehensive study of African American military service of its era,” alongside his disability pension file—a strategy that pays dividends (p. 13). Wilson’s quest to secure a pension was of a piece with the ambition of his writing: to wrest “recognition and respect” for the contributions of black soldiers to the Union war effort (p. 33). Varon concludes that Wilson was “a bridge between the early black historians such as William Wells Brown and modern pioneers such as Carter G. Woodson” (p. 35).

William C. Davis supplies the next essay, an exposé of Loreta Janeta Velasquez’s The Woman in Battle (1876). Many historians have celebrated Velasquez as a “gender-bending soldier”; however, Davis, reprising the argument of his 2016 study Inventing Loreta Velasquez: Confederate Soldier Impersonator, Media Celebrity, and Con Artist, concludes that the book “has no merit whatever as a work of history or autobiography.” Instead, he argues that Velasquez’s wartime tale is one the clever celebrity “consciously invented, honed, altered and amended in the press for fifteen years before she codified it in her book” (p. 74).

Cushman takes the disparity between the surrender meetings at Appomattox and Bennett Place as the point of departure for his superb essay on the memoirs of Joseph E. Johnston and William Tecumseh Sherman. Unlike the Palm Sunday meeting in Wilmer McLean’s parlor, quickly fetishized by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and others, the Army of Tennessee’s surrender in North Carolina was “too scattered, protracted, confused, and messy to offer the stuff of clean closure and marketable narrative” (p. 83). That “closure” would not come until the final decade of the nineteenth century, “when the public began to imagine ... that Johnston self-sacrificingly handed over his life to Sherman’s memory” (pp. 103-4). This imagining owed much to the memoirs produced by the two Bennett Place principals; these books, Cushman argues, “were connected from the start” (p. 86).  “When one reads the two books side by side,” he writes, “it is difficult to avoid the conjecture that Sherman’s representation of their special antagonism was an attempt to invent the friendship it purported to describe” (p. 96).

Several essays approach some well-thumbed texts from oblique angles. J. Matthew Gallman discovers in Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women (1868) “an early statement of historic memory about the Civil War,” while Sarah E. Gardner revisits Mary Chestnut’s diary in a penetrating piece that reveals “the importance of reading in Civil War America” (pp. 110, 213). Other contributors reintroduce some foundational works. Brenda E. Stevenson offers an appreciation of the black abolitionist Charlotte Forten’s diary, “an invaluable snapshot of the immense social, political, and military developments that unfolded in the South Carolina Low Country,” while Kathryn Shively’s splendid essay recalls the “stunning success” of Jubal Early’s writings in seeding the Lost Cause and “rehabilitating” the irascible general’s “public image” (pp. 195, 161). Shively deftly reveals Early’s authorial strategies, which ultimately lent his writings a virtually unrivaled “authority” over the emerging history of the Army of Northern Virginia (p. 141). “It has taken historians a century and a half,” she concludes, “to appreciate the power of Early’s works” (p. 162).

Two chapters on narratives produced by Confederate officers end the volume. Keith S. Bohannon’s essay offers a revisionist take on John Brown Gordon’s Reminiscences of the Civil War (1903), focusing on the general’s treatment of the “fatal halts” at Gettysburg, the Wilderness, and Cedar Creek. “While some commentators argue that Reminiscences is flawed by having been written late in life when the author’s memory was confused and faded,” Bohannon writes that Gordon’s assessment of these engagements “was in fact formed during and immediately after the Civil War and changed little in succeeding decades” (p. 229). Finally, Gallagher reflects on the two memoirs penned by E. Porter Alexander. Noting Alexander’s “willingness to present ... the dark side of the war,” as well as “his unblinking critique of Lost Cause icons Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson,” he celebrates the artillerist’s books as peerless “among all accounts published by Confederate soldiers” (p. 260).

Civil War Americans produced richly layered narratives, diaries, and memoirs that continue to shape how we understand the conflict. The essayists in this volume historicize some of these accounts and consider their influence over time, revealing the depth, texture, and yet untapped interpretive potential of Civil War writing. Anyone interested in how the experience of war is translated into prose should read this book—and anticipate the volumes yet to come.

Brian Matthew Jordan is assistant professor of history and director of Graduate Studies in History at Sam Houston State University. He is author of Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War, a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in History, and coeditor of The War Went On: Reconsidering the Lives of Civil War Veterans, forthcoming from Louisiana State University Press.

Citation: Brian M. Jordan. Review of Gallagher, Gary W.; Cushman, Stephen, eds., Civil War Writing: New Perspectives on Iconic Texts. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. August, 2019. URL:

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