War, Memory, and a Southern Family’s Civil War Letters
The Civil War ended 150 years ago. Yet, it remains alive in many aspects of American culture and politics.
For those of us who grew up in the South in the 1940s and 1950s, it was not uncommon to have elderly relatives who had been small children during the war and who still remembered some of the conflict and how it affected their families. It also was not uncommon to hear the war described as if the South had not been defeated. (Indeed, my elementary school was named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and I attended infamous Little Rock Central High at the time when it was forced to re-open and admit black students under the protection of paratroopers sent by President Eisenhower).
Journey to the Wilderness is structured around an intimate, engrossing collection of Civil War-era letters. They were written by some of Frye Gaillard’s ancestors, including his great-great-grandfather, Thomas Gaillard, and Thomas’s sons, Franklin Gaillard and Richebourg Gaillard, both of whom were officers in the Confederate army.
The letters eloquently capture the high hopes of Southerners as the long fight begins. Then the grim realities of mid-19th-century warfare begin to hit home. As the war stretches out in duration, some of the Gaillards’ letters from the front lines continue to praise the gallantries of Southern infantry and artillery batteries, even in defeat, while condemning the apparent ineffectiveness of Southern cavalry units in certain battles.
At the same time, the two Confederate officers spare few details when describing deaths and injuries witnessed during combat, in such notable battles as Shiloh, Gettysburg, Sharpsburg, and the Wilderness.
The family letters in his book, Frye Gaillard writes, “help paint a portrait of a horrifying time in American history, a time when 622,000 soldiers died on American soil, and when the southern half of the nation–so righteous and defiant when the conflict began–experienced a loss that was measured not only in blood but also in what one of my ancestors called the ‘cruelty and humiliation’ of defeat.”
Frye Gaillard also devotes part of his important book to his own “reflections on war and memory–on how the past lives on in the present, and how it draws us, slowly if we let it, in the painful direction of a more honest truth.”
For anyone drawn to Civil War history and to the conflict’s continuing ramifications, this book is a gem to seek out and read.