First-Person Narratives of the American South, 1860-1920, includes hundreds of diaries, autobiographies, travel accounts, and memoirs dealing with life in the southern states before, during, and after the Civil War. The collection, directly tied to the "Documenting the American South" collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, allows one to explore a variety of historical topics from the viewpoints of subaltern perspectives often overlooked in more traditional surveys of the period. Texts from women, slaves, enlisted soldiers, and common laborers abound in the collection and often surprise the reader with their depth of feeling and universality of sentiment on such subjects as abolition, regional pride, and wartime survival.
The Civil War
The history of the southern United States from 1860-1920 can appropriately be described as the history of the American Civil War. Although the war only lasted from 1861-1865, its effects echoed in the decades that followed. In addition to the great issues such as slavery and states' rights that found their forum in the violent struggle, more than half a million men -- a whole generation of Americans -- lost their lives. The survivors represented in First Person Narratives of the American South chronicle the experiences of southerners from all stations in life -- white and black, rich and poor.
One of the great strengths of this collection is the inclusion of many documents that relate the common soldier's perspective on the war. Although readers may be familiar with the great military campaigns and famous generals who led the armies, the collection affords a wonderful opportunity to explore the lives and views of the soldiers who fought the battles and followed their leaders through four long years of deprivation and suffering. For instance, a search on Stonewall Jackson yields several documents including John S. Robson's account of his service as a private in Jackson's army. Robson speaks for many of his generation when he states:
. . . though the historians will tell, with eloquent pen, of the grand movements of armies and of the deeds of the Generals, he will hardly stop to explain how the private soldier was evolved from the farmer, the clerk, the mechanic, the school-boy, and transformed into the perfect, all-enduring, untiring and invincible soldier, who broiled his bacon on a stick and baked his bread on a ramrod.
Regarding the Battle of Antietam, Robson relates:
We left Harper's Ferry on the 16th, and joined General Lee the same evening, and our commanders, on both sides, were busy arranging for the big battle that was to come off tomorrow, as coolly as farmers getting ready to plant corn. It was no new business to us now - for the novelty was all worn off - but we did wish for our twenty thousand stragglers in Virginia. The ball opened at daylight, on the 17th, and as one old soldier expressed it, "we fought all day before breakfast, and went on picket all night before supper." "Fighting" Jo Hooker was immediately in front of Jackson's line; anybody that complained of employment that day was hard to satisfy.
- What is the significance of the common soldier's perspective?
- What was the importance of the common soldier's experience to the post-war South?
- Would you describe Robson's tone as humble or arrogant? Why?
- Do you think that Robson's description of the commanders is flattering or derogatory?
- Who do you think was Robson's intended audience? Who might be most likely to read works like this now?
Some of the most fascinating and arresting texts in the collection are those written by, or about, operatives behind enemy lines. These accounts contain some of the most biased and vindictive criticisms of the Federal army in the collection and will help readers appreciate the intensity of the sectionalism that divided the country. A search on prisons yields several documents including Miles O. Sherrill's A Soldier's Story: Prison Life and Other Incidents in the War of 1861-'65. Sherrill's brief story relates his wounding at Spottsylvania and the subsequent amputation of his leg by Federal surgeons. After the tortures of the field hospital, though maimed for life, Sherrill relates that he was eventually imprisoned in Elmyra, New York where smallpox, starvation, and dysentery were the norm. Upon arriving at the prison:
The commanding officer, Major Beal, greeted us with the most bitter oaths that I ever heard. He swore that he was going to send us out and have us shot; said he had no room for us, and that we (meaning the Confederate soldiers) had no mercy on their colored soldiers or prisoners. He was half drunk, and I was not sure but that we might be dealt with then and there. Then we were searched and robbed of knives, cash, etc., and sent into various wards. While we were standing in the snow, hearing the abuse of Major Beal, some poor ragged Confederate prisoners were marched by with what was designated as barrel shirts, with the word "thief" written in large letters pasted on the back of each barrel, and a squad of little drummer boys following beating the drums. The mode of wearing the barrel shirts was to take an ordinary flour barrel, cut a hole through the bottom large enough for the head to go through, with arm-holes on the right and left, through which the arms were to be placed. This was put on the poor fellow, resting on his shoulders, his head and arms coming through as indicated above; thus they were made to march around for so many hours and so many days. Now, what do you suppose they had stolen? Why, something to eat. Yes, they had stolen cabbage leaves and other things from slop barrels, which was a violation of the rules of the prison.
- Why do you think that accounts from prisoners and spies are the most vindictive?
- What is the effect of Sherrill's detailed description of the use of barrel shirts for punishment?
- What other types of writing might try to persuade a reader to sympathize with the author's plight? Who might write such works?
- What might prompt an ex-prisoner to write about his/her experiences?
A search on spies yields five documents, all written by women. Nineteenth-century social mores placed women above suspicion and, when they were implicated in illegal activity, thus provided more leniencies. This, in short, made them effective spies. The texts represented in this collection present an array of loyalties and motivations.
The autobiography of Belle Boyd, the infamous Confederate spy, details the wartime activities of that Southern firebrand while Kate Plake's The Southern Husband Outwitted By His Union Wife relates that Kentucky author's concurrent quest for matrimonial peace and national freedom. Madame Loreta Janeta Velazquez' The Woman in Battle, describes her years of service in the Confederate army disguised as a man, and provides a wealth of gender related topics for discussion.
Women, whether they saw action or not, bore the brunt of the war's effects upon the region's domestic life. The Civil War was fought almost entirely in the South and its battlefields were the wilderness, farms, and towns of the region. The scorched earth policy adopted by Federal military leaders late in the war deprived the southern population of wares and food. Many cities such as Atlanta and Richmond were almost entirely destroyed by bloody campaigns. With the exception of the Revolution, the Civil War was the only prolonged U.S. conflict in which the civilian population was directly affected by the actions of the combatants. In A Diary From Dixie, Mary Boykin Chesnutt describes the situation of a Virginian family that had become refugees in her South Carolina home:
The Fants are refugees here, too; they are Virginians, and have been in exile since the second battle of Manassas. Poor things; they seem to have been everywhere, and seen and suffered everything. They even tried to go back to their own house, but found one chimney only standing alone; even that had been taken possession of by a Yankee who had written his name upon it.
Pages 347-48, A Diary From Dixie
- Why might the Yankee have written his name upon the Fants' chimney?
- How would it have felt to be a refugee? What sorts of challenges did refugees face?
- What items might have been hard to find in the Confederacy?
- Do you think that conditions on the homefront affected soldiers in the field? How?