H-Net Review

Rufus Robbins. _Through Ordinary Eyes: The Civil War Correspondence
of Rufus Robbins, Private, 7th Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteers_.
Edited by Ella Jane Bruen and Brian M. Fitzgibbons. Lincoln and
London: University of Nebraska Press, 2005. xi + 220 pp.
Illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography, index. $19.95 (paper), ISBN

Reviewed for H-CivWar by Kevin M. Levin, History Department, St. Anne’s-Belfield School, Charlottesville, Virginia

A Private’s Civil War

The growing number of published letters and diaries by Civil War soldiers over the last ten years reflects increased attention on the part of historians and suggests that their experiences are now central to understanding key questions of the war.  Civil War soldiers are no longer vague actors who followed the commands of superiors and marched blindly into battle, but complex actors worthy of serious analysis.  Historians have offered accounts of Civil War
soldiers’ ideological convictions, the role of unit cohesion, and the influence of loved ones back home as factors to understanding what motivated so many to remain in the ranks even after years of bloody fighting.  The daily minutiae of camp life has been uncovered, and the hard realities of marching and battle have also been described in detail and broken down into coherent chapters as if the soldiers themselves experienced the war in this way.[1]

_Through Ordinary Eyes_ brings together the correspondence of Rufus Robbins along with his brothers, sisters, and parents.  Compared with the experiences found in other published accounts, readers will find few descriptions of the battlefield and its horrors or references to key figures of the war.  This, however, is not a shortcoming, but serves to remind the reader that the lives of these men were not confined to the battlefield, but included a broad spectrum of experiences that were deemed to be worthy of communicating to loved ones back home.  The Robbins family hailed from South Abington,
Massachusetts and subscribed to the Universalist faith.  Robbins, a cobbler and farmer, enlisted at the age of thirty-one; his letters home cover the period between June 1861 and February 1863.

Robbins’s letters offer vivid descriptions of camp life, including picket duty, entrenchments, target practice, and fatigue duty.  Readers interested in the types of food consumed by Civil War soldiers will find a great deal to chew on in Robbins’s account. Rufus enticed his brother Henry by predicting, “if you could see my nice fried pork and white mealy potatoes mashed up on my plate with a little gravy on them and the sauce sweetened a very little, you would
say it was good enough for anyone” (p. 168).  The correspondence presents a contrast between references to peaceful scenes of muskmelons, apple orchards, and singing birds on the one hand and brief references to the horrors of the battlefield.

The reader soon realizes that Robbins was a simple man caught up in an event that defined his generation.  On occasion one wonders whether Robbins was aware of the important cause for which he volunteered, because he spent an inordinate amount of time reporting on things that may seem to us as mundane.  Robbins did on occasion reflect on the meaning of the war and whether his time in the army constituted a worthy cause.  In response to his sister and father who approved of his service, Robbins noted that “I am engaged in a good cause” (p. 70).  Individual letters also point to the constant
struggle between a belief in the cause and the longing for home and loved ones:  “I think of home often, but not with regret that I left it, for there is need of me here” (p. 132).

Robbins’s life was cut short in early 1863 after contracting chronic diarrhea and suffering through numerous transfers from hospital to hospital owing to a doctor’s refusal to issue a discharge.  Perhaps sensing that his time was short, Robbins shared some final thoughts with his family:  “Last night … I dreamt I was at home and I was out under the trees and they looked _so beautiful_.  When I got awake it was toward morning, and I longed so to be there to walk under the trees and look up into the beautiful moon and one bright star was shining for me…. Tell [mother], _I have no doubts_ about the future.  It is all bright for me, and no fear of dying, for I feel that God will make it easy for me” (p. 191).  Robbins’s words–like so many other Civil War soldiers–have a way of reducing the roughly 140 years to a single point, thus bringing home the ordinariness of emotion that is universally understood.  _Through Ordinary Eyes_ is a worthy addition to the growing list of published primary sources from the Civil War.


[1].  For an overview of this literature, see Reid Mitchell, “Not the General but the Soldier,” in _Writing the Civil War:  The Quest to Understand_, ed. James M. McPherson and William J. Cooper Jr. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998), pp. 81-95.


A Couple Things

Sorry for the constant change in blog themes.  I was experimenting with different looks and realized in the end that simplicity is a virtue.  This theme provides plenty of horizontal room for postings as opposed to the more confined formats.

I should have mentioned this earlier, but there is an excellent blog that focuses on Boston and the American Revolution that I recently listed on the blogroll.  It is called Boston 1775 and the posts are intelligent and entertaining.  Definitely check it out.

I don’t know how many of you are tennis fans, but I am totally psyched for the Wimbledon final between Federer and Nadal.  Nadal is clearly a thorn in Federer’s side, but it should be a close and exciting match as they are playing on grass.  Federer is an absolute pleasure to watch.  His shots are clean and his moves are so graceful.  There is a certain beauty in watching him perform.  He is obviously very comfortable with his body.  I do love team sports, but singles tennis hinges on the individual’s endurance and mental toughness.  It is an exercise in all-around discipline. 


Fridays With Jeb and Felix

Today is the first installment of a new series called "Fridays with Jeb and Felix."  Of course, Jeb and Felix (a.k.a. "The Boys") are our cats.  Friday is a pretty relaxed day so the subject matter seems appropriate.  I am still trying to learn my way around the digital camera, which explains the red-eye.  I will eventually fix it.  For some hilarious photos of cats in sinks, check out Cats in Sinks [via Rebecca Goetz].  It’s a great place to "procatinate."


Trip to the Crater

My work on the Crater project is moving along, though I am still having some difficulty focusing.  Today I decided that it might be worthwhile driving down to Petersburg and re-connecting with the Crater battlefield.  I jumped into my car, popped in Bob Dylan’s Live 1966 and I was set.  I enjoy driving alone as it gives me time to think about things and solve the world’s problems.  The clouds were out, but the weather report suggested that it might clear by early afternoon.  I know, I should have been more realistic.  As I got closer to Richmond the clouds increased and right before Petersburg it started to rain.  I didn’t really mind that it rained.  The weather was cool, which made for a pleasant tramp across the battlefield.

I stopped off at the PNBP Visitors Center to pay my entrance fee and headed directly to the Crater.  My first stop was the Union lines by the Taylor Ruins and Fort Morton where Ambrose Burnside made his headquarters.  The view of the Crater is direct though it takes a bit of imagination to block out thePicture_023_1 trees.  This first photograph is from Fort Morton looking towards the Crater.

From there I headed over the Norfolk and Petersburg R.R. – which was surveyed by William Mahone before the war – and parked next to the trail that winds over to the tunnel.  Rather than head straight for the tunnel I decided to walk up the Baxter Road to where it intersects with the Jerusalem Plank Road.  There is a monument to Massachusetts soldiers, who served in the Petersburg Campaign, that was erected at the turn of the century.  Massachusetts veterans traveled Picture_024to Petersburg, and specifically to the Crater on a number of occasions.  Their close interaction with the local A.P. Hill Camp of Confederate Veterans fueled interest in preserving the battlefield for future generations that stretched beyond the Commonwealth.  Right across from the monument are two guns that are positioned to represent Henry B. Flanner’s Battery which saw a great deal of action on the morning of July 30, 1864. They were situated directly behind the Crater right along the Jerusalem Plank Road.  Federal units that managed to advance beyond the confines of the crater felt the full force of this particular battery.  This is a photograph taken from the position of the battery and looking towards thePicture_025 Crater.  I then walked along the Jerusalem Plank Road towards Blandford Cemetery to locate the entrance to the Covered Way that Mahone’s division used in their counterattack which took place some time around 9:00a.m.  It’s not easy to find and the actual path is difficult to follow since it winds through the woods.  For some reason I decided to wear sneakers and shorts today and needless to say I ruined the former.  It is indeed a strange feeling to follow the route used on that particular day knowing the result of the movement.  The walk was very quiet, but for the sighting of two young fawns.  I came out in the shallow area that David Weisiger’s Virginia brigade used as cover while they Picture_026organized their ranks.  It is difficult to get a feel for the topography of the battle since the landscape was transformed dramatically following the war.  The property remained in the hands of the Griffith family until it was purchased by the Crater Battlefield Association and turned into an 18-hole golf course.  Here is a view of the Crater from a point just beyond where the counterattack formed.  Notice the tree line on the left and you will see the shallow area that was used.  Beyond that you can see another slope and the Mahone monument.  I used to think that it was this further slope that was used, but that would put Mahone’s men too close to the advanced Federal units. 

The Mahone monument is a fairly prominent marker on the battlefield.  Visitors sometimes wonder whyPicture_028 there aren’t more monuments, but it should be remembered that the field remained in private hands until it was incorporated into the Petersburg National Military Park in 1936.  While many are familiar with Mahone’s name in connection with the battle, it is important to keep in mind that his postwar political career landed him in a great deal of trouble not only with his fellow Virginians, but with members of this own command.  Mahone’s Readjuster Party constituted one of the most successful bi-racial parties in the postwar South.  The monument was originally supposed to be located in a more prominent location, but owing to the protests of various groups it was decided to place the monument on the battlefield.  The monument is located at roughly the Virginia brigade’s right as it advanced towards the Crater.  Along the path of the counterattack I veered off to the left to walk part of the Confederate line that was occupied by McAfee’s North Carolinians.  Although they are covered by woods you can still make out the outline of the position. 

The only part of the battlefield that I did not photograph was the actual crater.  I guess if you’ve seen one hole you’ve seen them all.  Not quite, but for some reason I failed to snap a shot.  Sorry about that, but I am sure you can find one on the Internet somewhere.  On my way out I noticed one of the NPS Rangers leading a tour so I joined to get a sense of what people walk away with.  The guide focused a great deal of time on the actual digging of the tunnel – time that could have been better spent.  At the actual crater the guide suggested that the soldiers who fought within its confines were not fighting for union or secession, but for their comrades.  I don’t really know what to make of this.  Perhaps it was an attempt to steer clear of divisive topics or offered for some kind of dramatic effect.  All in all I had a great day.  The weather could have been nicer, but I do feel better for having gone.    


Traditional or New Military History: A Final Thought (for now)

I want to add one more post to this most recent series in this on-going debate surrounding the direction and proper scope of Civil War battle studies.  As to the question of the proper balance between both approaches, I really have nothing to add.  There is no answer to the question; it is a false dichotomy. In the end, my interests are in not simply understanding factually more, but understanding better, and to achieve these ends you must ask a broad range of questions.

The majority of my posts on this subject have focused on what the traditional battle narrative fails to include. I thought I would take a different approach here and concentrate on what I take to be the reasons for the overwhelming popularity of the traditional narrative and why there is so much resistance to some of the new approaches that academic historians have introduced over the past few decades.  I should add that these thoughts are not directed at any one group or individual.  They are based on my own observations of Civil War culture.

My concerns with the traditional narrative actually have not as much to do with what they fail to include, but with the historical context that continues to fuel its popularity. I tend to see the traditional battle narrative as falling squarely within the context of postwar reunion and reconciliation.  As the nation bound up its wounds and worked towards sectional reconciliation by the turn of the century, histories of the war came to reflect a growing unwillingness to engage the tough moral issues such as emancipation, race, and blame.  If the participants of the war tended to see themselves on an equal moral plain with their one-time enemies and not as political beings that harbored strong political beliefs and a deep hatred, then it is not surprising that our early histories focused on a sanitized view of the battlefield. If our collective goal is to see ourselves as unified and the war as part of the inevitable march of freedom, then it is not surprising that our historians ignored the darker aspects and unresolved issues that related to the war. (In fact, many historians at the turn of the
century contributed to the disfranchisement of African Americans by ignoring their role in the story and exacerbating the racial components of the Lost
Cause.)  I can see this clearly in my work on the battle of the Crater. Battles were slugfests that could be captured in all their glory and majesty without having to worry about the many political and social issues that animated the men in the ranks. Americans chose to celebrate the war and we continue to do so today. We really do want to be entertained by our Civil War.  I tried to make this point in much more detail in a recent paper, “Why the Civil War Still Matters,” which was presented as part of the Virginia Festival of the Book back in March.

Gary Gallagher is fond of pointing out that most people don’t just simply want to hear the same stories, they want to hear the same stories told well.  And those stories tend to satisfy our deep desire to relish in a narrative that is progressive and brings out the best in the American character.  It shields us from having to acknowledge the dark underbelly of our history.  Perhaps the human cost was not worth it in the end.  In light of the war in Iraq, perhaps we can see more clearly that the war did not really end in 1865, but simply took on a different form.  The questions that have come out of the academy have allowed me to explore the Civil War with a bit more sophistication.  More importantly, it has given me a more mature understanding of how the war both reflected progress and regression for various groups.  I do not want simply to be entertained by history. I want to be challenged and surprised.