Book review

Marching through Georgia: Pen Pictures of Everyday Life

By Fenwick Yellowley Hedley

 

Publisher Hunnyhill Publications, Price 20 (more info available at: www.bigwig.net/books/)

 

Reviewer: Chris Perry

 

In his preface the author states that his work is 'not intended to be a tactical history of the campaign' but a 'series of Pen Pictures of Everyday Life of the Soldier.' This book must be read with the author's preface in view. The author begins his account of the campaign in the Western Theatre eulogising the services of drummer boys and how they made long marches a little more bearable. He seems to have attempted to enlist at seventeen, only to be refused as being 'too puny". Thus he made arrangements with the Colonel to enlist as a drummer boy, being reduced immediately to the ranks on transference to the training (or boot) camp. We are treated to a resume of the long and tedious hours of dolls and parades, which anyone with military service will be able to relate.


The regiment in which he served was sent to the Army of the Tennessee shortly after the capture of Fort Henry. His first taste of fighting was at the Battle of Shiloh. He describes his regiment as being part of an initial reconnaissance in strength, describing the trip down the river to Pittsburgh Landings in an idyllic way since they were riding on gunboats 'Lexington' and 'Tyler'. They were met by some token resistance upon landing, telling how the Confederacy, expecting a landing at this point, had begun the construction of artillery positions and rifle pits. However at this point the Confederate strategy seems to have been somewhat lacking, since they were able to get ashore with the only resistance coming from companies of Confederates who were 'ill equipped with an assortment of hunting rifles.' However, during these skirmishes a sergeant is killed and it is Hedley's first experience of death in combat, the unfortunate casualty being a popular sergeant. This death is described in some detail. The writer suspects that this has stood out in Hedley's memory because it was "one of the first deaths and since casualties were correspondingly light at this time."

 

Subsequently he describes his experiences in the battle of Shiloh (or Pittsburgh Landing as both he and the Confederates subsequently named the battle.) During this fearful battle he describes his part in the fighting at the Peach Orchard somewhat to the left of the Hornet's Nest. He tells us that his company, after repulsing several advances by the Confederates was forced to retreat due to '"running out of ammunition". Whether this is the real reason the review writer leaves to the judgment of readers of this volume. He tells us that his company suffered some eighteen deaths out of about fifty or sixty men. Since he does not mention the number of wounded this gives us some idea of the frightful carnage suffered during this battle. Indeed he goes on to state that a Confederate officer of his subsequent acquaintance regarded this as the worst incident of the war.

 

Subsequently his company becomes part of a regiment that participates in the Battle of Corinth. The march to Corinth is discussed in far more detail than the battle itself and casualties are barely mentioned. The narrative moves on to the Siege of Vicksburg via Chattanooga and 'several severe battles and sharp skirmishes.' The author describes how General W. T. Sherman comes to the notice of Grant and his most trusted subordinate during the Siege. He tells us how, only two years before, Sherman was dismissed as a crank by Army High Command because he prophesied correctly that it would take 200,000 men to subdue Kentucky. Such are the fortunes of war and the stupidity of bureaucracy!

 

 

On to Kennesaw Mountain where the writer gives us insight into the "almost friendly relationships between us" when a Grey Skirmisher is captured by a Blue and escorted from the field by the latter, during the course of which they would swap anecdotes. Hedley's account moves on through several actions to the Siege of Atlanta. Here he describes the backbreaking toil and harsh conditions that appertained to a siege. Reading between the lines one can see how heart-breaking ordinary soldiers found sieges. From here he proceeds to describe Sherman's march to the sea. He tells us how the Union Army also deliberately destroyed rail lines and factories in order to reduce the South's ability to wage war.

 

The march to the sea is the bulk of the book, and various battles are described in more, or usually less, detail from the viewpoint of a private soldier, and later as a fairly junior officer. He describes the construction of 'corduroy roads' - the destruction of rail lines by lifting the pitch soaked sleepers and making a fire of them with which to beat the rails until 'cherry red' and binding them around a telegraph pole, thus making them useless and preventing the lines from being re-laid.

 

Of particular interest is the authors description of how the Army was supplied, usually inadequately, how supplies were moved by rail but precedence was given to the artillery and ammunition over food. Thus he tells us how each company had one or two men and a "clapped out mule" and empty wagon to forage for food. These men were known as 'bummers', or in European Armies - foragers. It seems they were usually hungry and sometimes went without food for two or three days. The writer suspects that this aspect of the narrative would have been familiar to Napoleon's soldiers. The efforts of local people to conceal their meager rations from hungry foragers are at once both comic, and tragic in their outcomes.

 

As the Army advances into Georgia he describes the dalliance between northern soldiers and southern belles, much to the annoyance of the local male population. The other striking episodes described are the considerable exertions of passing through some of the boggy terrain they are forced to cross. This eventually proceeds to the destruction of Columbia. Hedley describes the fire as being due to either deliberate arson on the part of the Confederates or freed slaves. However he also describes how officers of the rank of Colonel helped themselves to, and retain to the wars end, property belonging to local civilians. This sounds more like a sack to the writer than the author is prepared to admit. One of the striking things about the entire book is the obsequious and adulatory attitude the author had towards all his senior officers. Whether this is due to the passage of time or a hidden agenda on the author's part is difficult to ascertain. It certainly suggests that the leadership of armies in the Western Theatres was superior to those in the Eastern. As we know, U.S. Grant made his name in the West and was transferred east as a result. The writer doubts that eastern soldiers would have been quite so positive.

 

The problem with this work is that it was written at least twenty-five years after the events which it describes and as the writer admits, a lot of the detail is missing. Moreover, as we know memory tends to censor the more unpleasant aspects of experience over time. The fact is that the author remembers the first death of a comrade but tends to gloss over much higher casualty rates that occurred subsequently.

 

Nevertheless this is an interesting memoir of one person's experience of the Civil War and with the above proviso is an interesting read. It gives the reader insight into the day to day life of an ordinary man in the service of the Union, and his interpretation of what he has seen. For example he tells us that the soldiers preferred songs that talked about home and sweethearts rather than the more patriotic 'Rally round the Flag' or 'We are coming Father Abraham'. All that attendance at prayer meetings declined as the war progressed because "the boys did not want to be reminded of the after-life."

 

In summary, a worthwhile read describing campaigns that are less frequently described than those of the Eastern Theatre. As an historical document it must be read with some caution due to the time that elapsed between the writing of the memoir and events, and the rather sycophantic attitudes of the author. However, given the price of this book and that it is a limited edition it can only be described as a worthwhile addition to the collection of any Civil War buff.