Testament: A Soldier's Story of the Civil War

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9780743250917: Testament: A Soldier's Story of the Civil War

Dear Mother,

I was very glad to hear from home this morning. It is the first time since I left Otterville. We marched from Sedalia 120 miles....I almost feel anxious to be in a battle & yet I am almost afraid. I feel very brave sometimes & think if I should be in an engagement, I never would leave the field alive unless the stars & stripes floated triumphant. I do not know how it may be. If there is a battle & I should fall, tell with pride & not with grief that I fell in defense of liberty. Pray that I may be a true soldier.


Not since Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage have the trials and tribulations of a private soldier of the Civil War been told with such beguiling force. The Red Badge of Courage, however, was fiction. This story is true.

In Testament, Benson Bobrick draws upon an extraordinarily rich but hitherto untapped archive of material to create a continuous narrative of how that war was fought and lived. Here is virtually the whole theater of conflict in the West, from its beginnings in Missouri, through Kentucky and Tennessee, to the siege of Atlanta under Sherman, as experienced by Bobrick's great-grandfather, Benjamin W. ("Webb") Baker, an articulate young Illinois recruit. Born and raised not far from the Lincoln homestead in Coles County, Webb had stood in the audience of one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, become a staunch Unionist, and answered one of Abraham Lincoln's first calls for volunteers. The ninety-odd letters on which his story is based are fully equal to the best letters the war produced, especially by a common soldier; but their wry intelligence, fortitude, and patriotic fervor also set them apart with a singular and still-undying voice.

In the end, that voice blends with the author's own, as the book becomes a poignant tribute to his great-grandfather's life -- and to all the common soldiers of the nation's bloodiest war.

Les informations fournies dans la section « Synopsis » peuvent faire référence à une autre édition de ce titre.

About the Author :

Benson Bobrick earned his doctorate from Columbia University and is the author of several critically acclaimed works, including Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired, Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution, and Testament: A Soldier's Story of the Civil War. In 2002 he received the Literature Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He and his wife Hilary live inVermont.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. :

Chapter Eight

In the aftermath of the battle, the men foraged and skirmished and waited for the next big fight. It rained for several days, then a light snow began to fall. "Rebs seem to be prowling over the country in every direction," Webb wrote on January 19. Bragg had reportedly been reinforced at nearby Shelbyville, "with 40,000 [new men], we are receiving reinforcements & there may be a battle. If we don't go to the rebs they will come to us." Either way, he didn't mind.

For Webb, Stones River had been just another battle -- an inconclusive battle in a long and inconclusive war. Though he had been in the midst of the action and his own regiment had lost ninety-six, he was remarkably matter of fact about it in his letter home. "There was a hard fight here," Webb reported on January 10, "a heavy loss but Rosecrans gained the victory & the rebs. are gone. McCook was driven back 2 miles by the massed force of the enemy on our right before we were reinforced. The secesh got our knapsacks & blankets. I have been having the chills. Am well now. I am better satisfied now that John's remains are at home." His mother hoped to visit him at Murfreesboro, where Rosecrans's army was encamped, but he advised her against it, as he expected to be on the move. "We are likely to follow the enemy right up," he told her, "& I hope we will keep at it till the job is done -- don't like to waste so much time. I don't mind fighting for my country if we will only do it but I hate to lay round while the work remains to be done."

On the 19th, as he stood on picket duty four miles south of camp, a Rebel appeared with a flag of truce and a sealed dispatch addressed to Rosecrans. Perhaps it had to do with a prisoner exchange; it was not for Webb to ask. On the 31st, his regiment began a three days' march through mud, rain, and snow to Franklin, where they hoped to take on Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Rebel cavalry commander, who was wreaking havoc on their lines of supply. Almost every major bridge and trestle on the Louisville & Nashville Railroad had been damaged, cars burned, engines destroyed. In one place, "a tunnel had been choked with rubbish to a distance of 800 feet." Forrest sped up to Harpeth Shoals on the Cumberland River, and Union troops pursued. There, it was wishfully reported, he had "got decently cleaned out & himself mortally wounded & taken prisoner" -- which wasn't so. Meanwhile, General Jefferson C. Davis had turned the command of his division over to one of his colonels and taken a cavalry brigade up to try to cut off Forrest's retreat. "We are in readiness to go to his support if he needs us," Webb wrote his mother. "If you hear of a fight near Franklin now you may know we are in it."

Around Murfreesboro the skirmishing was chronic, as the opposing armies scoured the countryside for food. The Union troops, on half rations, were soon at risk of scurvy, and even officers regarded onions and potatoes as luxury fare. Webb seems to have accepted his plight, as usual without much complaint; military and political issues were uppermost in his mind. "One of our parties killed 10 rebs the other day & got 80 prisoners," Webb reported, as well as "several wagons & 300 cavalry saddles & accoutrements...No set battle is expected till we get to Chattanooga, but every inch of ground between here & there will be contested so our advance will be slow but I think sure." Meanwhile, a few weeks before, he had written, "I wish we could move soon & talk less -- Somehow I hope the war will close before another summer passes -- I don't know how the settlement is to come but somehow I look for it to come." Like many others, he also expected the manpower advantage of the North to tell and put great hope in the new draft act. "How do the fellows up north like the conscription bill?" Webb asked his mother. "The soldiers like it I tell you. Hope those braggy fellows at home will all get pulled in." Lincoln had also just signed a bill to authorize back pay. "The talk is that we will get 4 months soon. It will not be before we need it."

Both developments gave the soldiers heart, but there was another kind of trouble in the ranks. The Emancipation Proclamation, when first announced, set off celebrations in many Northern cities, but it had not been greeted with complete enthusiasm by the troops. "[It] has stirred things up considerable," reported Webb. "Some of the boys are very bitter about it. They say that they did not come to war to free niggers, but I guess this will bring the South to a compromise. Anyway, I hope the war will soon be over." Though primarily a Unionist, he didn't object to the Proclamation itself as an executive act; indeed, as we know, he had accepted the possibility of it a year before. But it incited others to near rebellion all that spring. "There has been a good deal of deserting since," Webb confessed to his mother in early March, "but I guess it will stop now -- I understand that the law is to be executed to the limit on deserters, & that means death -- for my part I would as soon die any other way as to be set up against a stump & shot at." At the same time, he questioned the Proclamation's practicality and timing, as he returned to the subject again:

Murfreesboro, Tenn., March 16, 1863

Dear Mother:

Yours of the 5th inst. was here [when] we got in. We have been on a ten days' scout. Nothing of importance transpired while we were gone. We got a drenching for 36 hrs. but it is clear & warm now. This is really a summer day. The trees are putting forth their leaves & the earth will soon be covered again with verdure. Already the grass is about good enough for cattle to live grazing. I would rather be here than at home till [the] war is over. I don't understand how loyal men can remain at home. I am sorry there is so much division in the North. The Proclamation serves a good purpose, as an excuse for some rebel sympathizers in the north. It can't do the slave much good till he gets inside of our lines. I suppose it will be hard on him till after that. The boys many of them don't like the idea of making soldiers of negroes. But after all they will do to shoot at as well as anybody if we could only think so.

Truly yours,

Webb.

Blacks, indeed, served admirably. On many a battlefield, as Lincoln's secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, would report, "they proved themselves to be among the bravest, performing deeds of daring and shedding their blood with heroism unsurpassed."

Meanwhile, Webb had now spent quite a bit of time in Tennessee and was strongly drawn to the land. Though parts of it were "devastated, & like a ruin," he still thought it "the prettiest country" he had ever seen. He liked the climate ("it is as warm as a May day today," he exulted during a brief winter thaw) and imagined he might come to live there after the war. "The few people who are left," he added, "are very friendly, & of refined manners. They are most all secesh. They say they never will submit to the usurpation of their rights. But I guess they will" (letter of February 8, 1863).

It seemed they must. "The enemy is in force in front of us," Webb wrote his mother on March 25. "We have 1Ž3 of the army on picket all the time now I guess & the rest are under orders to be ready to march with three days rations at a moments warning. It looks as if we were going to have a fight. Let it come."

News, some of it confused, came in from the Eastern front.

After the Federal defeat at Fredericksburg, Burnside had been replaced by Joseph Hooker, a dashing corps commander known to the rank and file as "Fighting Joe." A veteran of the Mexican and Seminole Wars, he had fought well in the Peninsular Campaign under McClellan, but he was a hard-drinking, boastful man, and his nickname actually derived from a copyediting error in an article telegraphed to newspapers, not from the martial ardor he had shown. Nevertheless, it stuck, and that helped him in his task. Over the next few months he took the Army of the Potomac in hand, reorganized and enlarged it, and restored its spirit and strength. At the end of April 1863, he advanced to Chancellorsville in an attempt to outflank Lee's left. "The enemy must either ingloriously fly," he informed his troops, "or come out from behind his defenses and give us battle on our own ground, where certain destruction awaits him." Later that night, he actually announced, "The rebel army is now the legitimate property of the Army of the Potomac. They may as well pack up their haversacks and make for Richmond."

They did no such thing. Lee divided his army and sent most of it through a dark ground called the Wilderness to attack Hooker's right. The forest cover was thick, mostly pine and black oak, with a dense undergrowth tangled with vines. Though vastly outnumbered, Lee fought with more skill, and in every part of the five-day engagement beat Hooker's army in detail. On May 5, the baffled Union commander withdrew his forces back across the Rappahannock in defeat.

In Webb's camp, the men were "jubilant over the fact authentic that Charleston, S.C., the mother of secession," had fallen (though in fact it had not); but learned the truth about the Federal debacle at Chancellorsville. "We are disappointed to some extent," he told his mother on May 19, "though not so much perhaps as we would have been if the Potomac army had never been beaten before, but anyway we expected something of Fighting Joe, & we got something, i.e. a good drubbing. We should have liked it better if the result had been different but we are not here to complain. I guess Burnside & Hooker are not the men to handle great armies. They are good fighters directed, but not to direct." Such has been the judgment of history, too.

But for the armies of the South, a purely defensive war held out almost no hope for their aspirations, for, as one historian notes, "sooner or later Lee's army would be forced back on Richmond, and there meet its end." Grant was now at the gates of Vicksburg, a Gibraltar-like stronghold on the lower Mississippi, and Bragg was hard put to keep Rosec...

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