Book Review: The Civil War Notebook Of Daniel Chisholm

The Civil War Notebook Of Daniel Chisholm:  A Chronicle Of Daily Life In The Union Army 1864-1865, edited by W. Springer Menge and J. August Shimrak

As an undergraduate student I was required to read a diary of a German Napoleonic soldier that had been found in Kansas.  The experience was a worthwhile one, in that it showed me that there can be a great deal of importance in the writing of obscure people like myself who happen to be observers and participants in history.  This book is certainly not elite history, but is rather a complicated set of writing included in the notebook of a Uniontown, Pennsylvania born and bred Civil War veteran who survived into the 20th century.  As someone with a great interest in diaries [1] and letters, this book was definitely a worthwhile one, as it gave a picture of how the war was like for greenhorns who showed up too late for the more gentle seasoning of the beginning of the war and got caught up in the meat grinder of the Overland Campaign of 1864.  It is more than a bit of a miracle that all three of the authors of these particular materials survived until the end of the war.  At any rate, it provides a compelling story of the end of the Civil War.

This book, at about 200 pages, is divided into two sections based on the materials from Mr. Chisholm’s diary that was transcribed into this book.  The first half of this book or so is made up of the diary of a noncommissioned officer from the same unit, Samuel Clear.  At first, the reader will likely be puzzled as to why Chisholm did this, rather than write his own diary, but Clear’s writing is pretty compelling.   The author/compiler and his brother appear to have joined the army for the bounties, but Clear showed a stronger sense of idealism.  The diary itself gives a soldier’s eye look at the war, without an understanding of the larger strategies, and gives some striking insight into conditions in the Overland Campaign as well as the siege of Petersburg, including the forgotten battle of Ream’s Station, which more or less ended the career of the II Corps as an attacking force.  The reason this diary is included becomes more plain when one looks at the second half of the book, which contains the letters of Daniel Chisholm and his brother Alex.  Daniel, it turns out, spent months convalescing from a serious leg wound that stubbornly refused to heal, and so he missed out on much of the ‘glory’ of the successful end of the war and seems to have wanted to include an account from a friendly source.

It is likely that many readers will find this book to be a friendly source about the end of the Civil War.  One gets a sense of the bravery of soldiers, their concerns for money and honor, and their desire to be remembered and also to preserve the memory of their fellow soldiers.  The supplementary information at the end of the book shows just how destructive war was for the unit, with so many killed and wounded and the leader of their unit having sacrificed his health for the Union and dying shortly after the war clothed.  A few of the unit ended up being prisoners and dying in Plymouth, North Carolina, which appears to have been a forgotten prisoner of war camp.  The diary hints at the larger stories that involved the experiences of warfare, and shows a group of soldiers of considerable valor and skill even if many of them were novices at warfare and could not have been prepared for the horrors they experienced in 1864 and early 1865.  Sometimes it is good to look at how war is experienced by the ordinary soldier rather than from the view of the larger tactics and strategies where everything makes more sense.  Most of us, after all, live under the fog of war.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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