Thursday, November 5, 2009

Book Review: No Soap, No Pay, Diarrhea, Dysentery & Desertion




No Soap, No Pay, Diarrhea,Dysentery & Desertion: A Composite Diary of the Last 16 Months of the Confederacy from 1864 to 1865
Editor: Jeff Toalson
Copyright 2006
iUniverse, Inc.

Despite the long, unwieldy title (which is just as long as some of the entries inside the book), Mr. Toalson's work is very enjoyable, readable and informative. The many authors who contributed to it all add their own perspectives - often these match what others say, but even when that's the case, each author has his or her own way or describing the situation and its impact on his or her life.

The editor researched many letters, diaries and other accounts of what life was like in the Confederacy in the later stages of the American Civil War, for both civilians and military personnel, concentrating on writings that were made while events were ongoing instead of memoirs or books written years or decades later (with a few exceptions.) This decision by Mr. Toalson added a feel of authenticity to the book - people describing events as they were, not as they tried to remember them being (or wanted to remember them, which often happens in books or descriptions written decades later.)

He pulled out many interesting entries and partial entries, usually showing the struggles many people faced, in terms of finding food or clothing, coping with diseases, the army's struggle to pay the troops and the emotions faced by families missing each other while one or more were fighting for the Confederate army or navy. Times were tough and the entries in this book show just how difficult this period was, including soldiers' entries on the lack of soap needed to cleanse themselves and their clothes, and descriptions of how rapid inflation impacted civilians throughout Southern states.

It is a very enjoyable book, and is the kind you can read all the way through, or can put down for a few days or weeks and pick back up where you left off, without needing to remember what had previously happened, like with most traditional books. It is over 400 pages long, but reads like a shorter book, because most of the entries are only a couple of sentences long. The book's format, with so many different entries from different writers, gives it a different flow than most narratives, but this allows it to be the "composite diary" its title promises.

One problem I expected when I picked up this volume was that it would be difficult to get to know any of the "characters" like I usually do when reading diaries, collections of letter or journals, and to some extent that happened a bit, but not as much as I feared. There are several people whose entries are frequent enough that I felt I was almost developing a relationship with them and kind of knew what to expect them to say. The most prominent example is Mrs. Catherine Edmondston, an outspoken plantaion wife from North Carolina, whose strong pro-Confederate opinions also featured criticism of Southern politicians and their actions or thereof. She was certainly anything but shy in her opinions.

John B. Jones, the war clerk in Richmond, provides updates on prices of various items and the worth of Confederate money, with other commentaries about daily life sprinkled in as well.

Private Johnny Green, part of the Confederate Cavalry, reported on the hardships his unit faced; he was one of several soldiers whose writings are frequent in this book, giving their perceptions of soldier life.

This book has a nice variety of writers represented - infantry and cavalry soldiers, sailors, as well as several women. Fathers, mothers, sons, generals, privates, officers, government officials, and inspectors all preseent their opinions and views throughout this book, providing it with a very good diversity of sources (though, of course, no slaves or African-Americans writings are represented as they were not truly Confederates, the subject of this book, and given the educational beliefs at the time, not many such writings exist.)

Another source of variety that I truly appreciated was the geographic diversity of the writers. While reading the introdution and of the editor's research in various depositories in Virginia, I thought this might be more of a "Virginia-centric" book, giving opinions only from that theater of the war, but I was completely and totally wrong. The wide geographic variety of the writers certainly is a very positive aspect of this book, as it includes entries from several states, like Virginia, Georgia and Louisiana, among others, Confederate ships, hospitals, and even Union prison camps.

For anyone interested in an enjoyable, readable book, No Soap, No Pay, Diarrhea, Dysentery & Desertion is absolutely worth acquiring and reading. It is a wonderful additon to a Civil War library and adds great perspective to some of the struggles many southerners faced during this era

(As always, opinions expressed in this review are soley mine, and no compensation is involved in any book I review.)

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