War Stories Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

First-person accounts of war add depth and immediacy to our understanding of events. Historians often present war as a straightforward narrative of dates and times, winners and losers, but the stories of individuals as told through war correspondence remind the reader that the experience is unique for each participant. It is also the case that war correspondence is often a problematic primary source, as writers respond to censorship, expectations of honorable action, and a desire to assuage the guilt and worry of those left at home. Still, these eyewitness accounts of life aboard ship, in bloody battlefields, and under constant fire are crucial to our understanding of the Civil War. Through them, readers are able to understand how ordinary citizens found meaning within the larger political and military context.

First-person accounts of war add depth and immediacy to our understanding of events. Historians often present war as a straightforward narrative of dates and times, winners and losers, but the stories of individuals as told through war correspondence remind the reader that the experience is unique for each participant. It is also the case that war correspondence is often a problematic primary source, as writers respond to censorship, expectations of honorable action, and a desire to assuage the guilt and worry of those left at home. Still, these eyewitness accounts of life aboard ship, in bloody battlefields, and under constant fire are crucial to our understanding of the Civil War. Through them, readers are able to understand how ordinary citizens found meaning within the larger political and military context.

In his dispatches to a Boston newspaper, free African American William H. Johnson was very clear about his reason for fighting, and his understanding of the reason for the Civil War. He believed that it was a war to end slavery, “the monster,” and a simple question of right and wrong. He believed in this so firmly that, despite being unable to formally enlist in the Union Army, he served in a supporting role. Johnson’s narrative of his wartime experience gives valuable insight not only into his motivation, but into the experience of the war for free blacks. He also observes the behavior and situation of slaves, becoming outraged when he finds out that they are manning some Confederate guns, and commenting on the Roanoke Freedman’s Colony, settled by recently released slaves. Another Union soldier writing for a newspaper, Richard Burt, was dug in at the Siege of Vicksburg in Mississippi. His primary motivation for continued action was his trust in the leadership of General Ulysses S. Grant, who he says inspired “unlimited confidence” in his men. Though it is difficult to tell how much of Burt’s unfailing positivity is calculated to inspire support on the home front, he was clearly convinced that Grant’s plan could not fail. Still, he illustrated some of the hardships of war: hunger, sickness, injury, and death.

Union naval officer Rowell Lamson and soldier Charles Harvey Brewster addressed their letters to a much more intimate audience–family members and loved ones–though they may have both expected that their letters would be shared with others. Indeed, Brewster acts as somewhat of a war reporter, sending his mother lists of wounded men so she can share that information with the local paper. Lamson was on blockade duty in the South, and his letters to his fiancée are informative, cheerful, and optimistic. He clearly wished her to be proud of him, and her letter back to him is equally cheerful and supportive, though she clearly misses him, and their relationship is strained somewhat by his absence. Brewster’s is a much more somber narrative, describing in detail the destruction and carnage he witnessed on the battlefield. He went as far as to describe the smell of corpses, overlaid by the fragrance of magnolias, but also excoriated those who had not joined the war, clearly believing in its cause while recording its terrible cost.

Union soldiers, Army of the Potomac, writing letters home. Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-stereo-1s02987

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