The major strength of this book is the inside glimpse it gives us into the everyday lives of the common confederate soldiers. For example, he tells us, “The best article carried by the soldiers was a needle case, as it was called, containing needles of various sizes, thread, buttons, etc. It soon became the most valuable of our possessions, and when we went into camp we would see the men occupied in sewing or patching their clothing, and towards the last of the war, it was in almost constant use. Notwithstanding this, it was hard to keep the ragged clothing from showing a portion of the skin of its wearer.” [p. 27]
While his position meant he wasn’t privy to any of the strategic decisions, he does give us his observations of the results of those decisions. Regarding Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s methods, he gives us this anecdote: “Gen. Jackson was a great man for saving everything captured from the enemy. His way was to save everything already on hand and never destroy if there was a chance to save. It was a saying in the command that he would carry off a wheelbarrow load, rather than let it fall into the hands of the enemy. While we were camped around Winchester, he was diligently at work getting everything out of reach of the enemy, in case he should be compelled to leave; even the locomotives and cars, that were captured at Martinsburg, were sent to the rear. Because the valley pike was such an excellent road, he could do this. He sent parties of men along the pike, who cut down trees, and used the timber in bracing the bridges to enable them to endure great weight. When everything was ready, large teams of horses and mules were hitched to the locomotives and cars at Martinsburg, and they were hauled to Strasburg, a distance of about fifty miles, where they were put on the Manassas Gap railroad for the use of the Confederacy. In this way many locomotives and cars were saved. During this movement, I saw at one time five cars on their way to Strasburg.” [p. 65]
We also learn that like the rest of the confederate army, Stonewall Jackson’s units were engaged in the business of protecting and strengthening the institution of slavery. He gives us this scene from the Second Manassas Campaign: “Gen. Jackson now sent a force ahead to capture Manassas, which was done during the night with small loss to us. Immense quantities of stores were captured with several trains of railroad cars, eight pieces of artillery with caissons and horses, etc., complete, a number of wagons, several hundred prisoners, and several hundred negroes, who had been persuaded to run away from their owners.” [p. 119] Speaking of the confederate use of African-Americans, we also get this: “The negroes who accompanied their masters during the war were a source of much merriment as well as comfort to us. I recollect the experience of two of our negro cooks in battle. On one occasion we were in line of battle when Archer, a cook in one of our companies, came to the front with his master’s haversack of rations. We were taking things easy at the time, some lying on the ground, others sitting or standing up engaged in talking over the impending battle, and at the sight of Archer we gave him a hurrah as a welcome. He had been with us only a few minutes, when the enemy made an advance along our front and turned our flank. Fighting became warm, and we had a hot time before we succeeded in driving them back; but following up our success, we drove the enemy from the field of battle. Archer was caught in the fight, and when night came and we were joined by the cooks, he had a splendid account to tell his companions of the part he took in the battle. He told them he took the gun of one of our dead, and fought side by side with ‘Marse Jim,’ and he ‘knows I killed a dozen Yankees. Oh, you ought just to have see me in the charge! Me and ‘Marse Jim’ just whipped them clean out!’ This account of Archer’s made a hero of him in the estimation of his friends, and so impressed them that one of their number, Ned, made up his mind then and there to go into the next battle, and see if he could eclipse Archer’s account! Ned did not have long to wait, as we met our old enemy again some weeks later, when a line of battle was formed in a wood. Ned was in it, with gun in hand. He had a large knapsack strapped to his back, filled to overflowing with articles from many a battlefield, which he had been carrying for a month or more with the hope of sending it to his wife by some soldier who was going to his neighborhood. Besides the knapsack he had one or more haversacks filled in same manner, and his canteen! When we received orders to move forward, Ned marched boldly in our midst, and when we reached the edge of the woods the enemy opened on us,–a spent ball hitting Ned squarely in the forehead, raising a knot as large as a hen’s egg in a few minutes! As soon as Ned was struck he was seen to halt, his mouth flew open, his eyes bulged, and he made a movement as if he was going to run, but the men steadied him by telling him that Archer was knocked down several times by balls, and he got up and killed the man who had shot him! In our advance we crossed a fence and started across a field. A man at Ned’s side was shot down. Ned started and stopped at the sight, his gun fell from his hand, a ball went over his shoulder, cut the strap on his knapsack, and, as it turned, Ned slipped out of it letting it fall to the ground; at the same time disengaging his haversack and canteen, pulled off his coat, dropped it, too, brushed off his hat, wheeled and broke for the rear like a quarter horse, amidst the yells of our men! This was a sore subject ever after for Ned. Not that he ran away,–but losing all those things he had been saving to send to Sally! And he would not believe a word of Archer’s tale! Here is another tale of the negro, showing the feeling the southerner had for him. My mess, of about half a dozen, had built for winter quarters a log pen about two feet high; on this they erected their tent, and at one end we had an excellent log chimney. This made us very comfortable. We had a negro slave as cook, who stayed about our tent during the day, but slept in a cabin with other negroes. He was taken sick with measles; we made him leave his quarters and come and stay in our tent, where we cooked for him and nursed him until he was well.” [pp. 197-199] We learn a number of things from this. First, African-Americans were used as servants, not as soldiers. Second, African-Americans were not thought of as “southerners.” That term was reserved strictly for whites. Third, African-Americans were there for the amusement and comfort of the white southerners.
Anyone interested in learning about the common soldier in the confederate army, and especially about the 21st Virginia, will profit greatly from reading this book. I can recommend it for the details it gives on daily life and especially for the rosters it gives of the 21st Virginia.