Letters sent from two Minnesota brothers offer a vivid look inside the Civil War.
The Minnesota Historical Society has published one of its archival treasures, the wonderfully detailed Civil War letters of two brothers, Thomas and William Christie, who enlisted as privates in the Union Army in Winona in 1861 and stayed until the end.
They were light artillery men in the First Minnesota Battery and worked together in the same unit for much of the war. They fought at Shiloh, Corinth, Vicksburg and Atlanta, marched with Sherman to the sea, then battled north through the Carolinas to hem in Lee's remaining army in spring 1865. Taken captive while foraging, William spent a few weeks as prisoner of the Confederates during the last gasp of the war.
The writing is vivid and informative. It covers everything from the interior look of a soldier's tent and the procedure for firing an artillery piece to the thundering spectacle of shelling Vicksburg at night. We learn about the "stench from unburied horses and half-buried men" at Shiloh and about an area of northern Alabama that has the "loveliest Land in America."
Bold as soldiers, the brothers also have vigorous minds. Thoughtful opposition to secession and slavery is their reason to fight. After seeing the South, Thomas writes that slavery has harmed blacks and whites, as well, retarding education and economic development.
While occupying Vicksburg in 1863-64, the brothers take a prominent role in the Union Literary Association, a 50-member soldiers' group that stages debates, publishes a magazine and solicits books from home to form a library. William has some success as a debater. Thomas is an excellent writer.
Both men try to put the best face on their experience. So interesting do their lives seem that their younger brother back home wants to enlist, too. Advising against it, they try to reverse more than two years' worth of upbeat effect, Thomas confessing his soldier's life to be "unbearable were it not for the cause."
The letters are so engaging that one longs for more. Of the 274 that still exist in one form or another, the volume contains just 128. It is too bad more could not have been included, though some can be seen at the MHS Library website (www.mnhs.org/library/Christie/intropage.html).
The book's main weakness is its failure to discuss editorial decisions: what principles governed the selection process, what rules guided the transcription, what proofing occurred. However, the introduction and footnotes provide valuable context, and the letters themselves are jewels of good reading.
George Killough teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.