My mother named me after a popular cheerleader from her high school days, but I discovered recently that I shared the name Adrienne with a patron saint of the military. This may explain why I’ve always been so drawn to soldiers’ stories. I bet there’s some deep psychological need lurking beneath this life-long interest, but I want to keep this post light for a change.
A jaunty, devil-may-care spirit runs through these three memoirs/diaries bringing to life the everyday happenings and mishaps of a soldier of the Civil War period. All three feature illustrations done by the soldiers themselves (in the case of the first two) or by a veteran (the last). Today we take for granted the ability to capture life’s visuals so easily. So many soldiers struggled to put into words their experiences, but not these three. The ordinary details of life in the Union Army burst from every page of these books, but what I find most appealing is how modern they all seem.
In between battles, the men and boys find ways to enjoy the grand adventure of their lives. They do what young people do; they get drunk, play games, seek the attention of the opposite sex and complain about their superiors. I suppose the men who crumbled under the enormous strain or did not find ways to make the best of things would hardly be the ones to write memoirs.
EYE OF THE STORM by Robert Knox Sneden
Sneden joined the army in the summer of 1861 and saw a few small engagments before being given the coveted position of mapmaker in the Potomac Army. His illustrations are beautiful and intricate in detail. They’re so quaint that even his illustrations of ANDERSONVILLE PRISON can’t help be a little pretty. The harrowing account of his time there sets the record straight. He gives daily weather reports and other details a research nerd like me really appreciates.
GONE FOR A SOLDIER by Private Alfred Bellard
As a New Jersey native I found Bellard’s stories especially appealing. I knew exactly where he was running off to every time he took leave while waiting to be sent South. His illustrations of bloody battle wounds and falls from wagons make up for in enthusiasm and candor what they may lack in accomplished artistry. His stories never shy away from the trouble the boys get themselves into when looking for a good time. Bellard’s openness is extremely endearing.
HARDTACK & COFFEE by John D. Billings
This one’s not quite a memoir, but it has the same spirit as the other two. Billings wrote this charming book to answer the many questions he often received from young people about the details of soldierly life during the war. What was it like sleeping in a tent with other men? (disgusting when the men did not share common hygiene practices). There are so many amusing anecdotes mixed in with great detail of army life. Billings almost makes being a soldier look like a lot of fun. The illustrations by fellow veteran Charles W. Reed add to the sense of merriment throughout the book.
How about you Civil War buffs? Any favorite memoirs from the time period? Let me know in the comments.