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Forgotten Valor- the memoirs, journals and Civil War letters of Orlando B Willcox

Book Review by Dave Bradley

Every now and then a book absolutely cries out to be bought, read and reviewed. This is such a book. I was actually on a tour of the south-west USA. Not a civil war tour but a tour of lawmen, outlaws gunmen and Indians. We were in the town of Willcox, Arizona and visited the local museum.  Our guide had told us that the town had been named after ACW general Orlando B Willcox.

On entering the Chiricuahua Regional Museum I saw the book and had no choice but to buy it. In the introduction to the book Robert Scott explains how he had previously edited a book of letters to and from Civil War Major Henry Abbott. The problem he had was finding documents. No matter how hard he tried he struggled but eventually got the book published.

One day whilst at home his phone rang. The lady at the other end said she had some documents relating to her great grandfather who had been in the Civil War. They got talking and Scott realised the lady may have a treasure trove of information so he arranged to visit her. What he found astounded him. Boxes and boxes of stuff that had lain untouched in an attic for 90 years. There were journals written before the war and during it, including some written whilst a POW. There were numerous letters, field orders, paybooks and  journals written over 40 years after the conflict ended. Eventually he collated it in cohesive form and had the journals published.


Willcox was from Detroit, Michigan and lived there when it was still a frontier town. They were under constant threat from Indian attack. At one point the townspeople felt so threatened they called in the army. Tragically when the army arrived, they brought cholera with them which killed far more people than the Indians were ever likely to. A bit later on, Willcox had moved to Boston where he was present when escaped slave Anthony Burns was arrested under the Fugitive Slave Law. He graphically described the riots.


When deciding which career path to follow Willcox was torn between becoming a lawyer or a soldier. Being a very religious man he wondered if soldiering was in some way sinful. He consulted his priest who assured him soldiering was fine and he would be doing his mother a favour as he would get a free education at Westpoint.  Willcox describes his time at Westpoint very clearly and the friends he made there who subsequently went on to fight in the Civil War. Orlando Willcox graduated in 1847 and although he did not actually fight in the Mexican War he was there all the way to Mexico City.


After the war, like a lot of other soldiers, he got disillusioned with the army and quit. He became a lawyer. However he soon got bored with life as a civilian and rejoined the army. When the Civil War broke out he was involved right from the start. He spent most of his time in the 9th corps. He was at first Manassas where he was shot in the hand. If his hand had not been raised at the time the bullet would have hit him in the side and probably killed him.

Here he was captured and spent 13 frustrating and difficult months as a prisoner. He was moved from prison to prison. At one point he was in Libby Prison in Richmond. He graphically describes the awful food and the filth - urine and excrement came down the walls and through cracks in the floor from the rank and file soldiers above them. He was always told he would be exchanged but it took 13 months for it to happen.


Willcox was there right until the surrender at Appomattox. He admits to the frustration of often being passed over for promotion but was able to cope with it without bitterness. He describes everything very clearly and comes over as a very nice and level-headed gentleman.


After the war he was involved in Reconstruction in Kentucky. He died whilst attending a reunion. Whilst reading this book I really felt as though I got to know Orlando Willcox very well, as did the editor Robert Scott.


One mystery remained after I finished reading. Willcox was from Detroit, had lived in Chicago, Boston and New York- so why was a town in far away Arizona named after him. The internet came to the rescue. The town was formed in 1880 as Maley but was renamed when General Willcox came for a visit in 1889.


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