Thursday, April 14, 2016

Book Review: Correspondence from Perryville by Jamie Gillum

By Jamie Gillum 
Copyright 2014
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

This is the most recent Perryville book that I have learned about, acquired and read. It is a good book, bringing back to life several forgotten viewpoints to the story of this battle.

The purpose of the book was to share insights and thoughts about the battle from soldiers who had fought there and then recorded their observations in writing before sending them to newspapers for publication. It accomplishes this by reprinting many of these writings (as well as some from newspaper correspondents.) The author does warn readers about the questionable reliability of newspaper reports from the era, but argues that correspondence from the actual soldiers have a trustworthiness that stories from the regular newspaper correspondents often lack. He also believes the soldier reports may be overlooked as a source in modern studies of the battle, so the majority of reports in this book are from soldiers.

The correspondence comes from many different soldiers and newspapers, both north and south, some from soon after the fighting and others published decades later. The variety is certainly impressive, as the reports cover a wide range of units in the battle and different locations throughout the field. Many viewpoints are represented.

Correspondence From Perryville prints these reports in the order of their newspaper publication. The stories are edited so they only discuss this battle, though some apparently were much longer in their original form. The author does provide brief introductions to each piece and follows them by listing their sources.

In some of these introductions, as well as in footnotes throughout the book, author Jamie Gillum offers insight into some of these reports, noting mistakes the writers made and offering other bits of information. He also contends that some of the collected correspondence contradicts modern scholarship. According to him, these descriptions of the battle show the fight started on the left flank of the Union line, not toward the center as modern scholars and interpreters claim. I wish he had gone further in-depth on this issue, but that was likely beyond the scope of this book. He kept his and the book's focus on the  newspaper accounts, letting them mostly speak for themselves. (Further discussion of his opinions on the battle can be found on the Civil War Talk discussion board and on his Perryville blog.)

This book is an easy read, even though most of the writing is from the late 1800s. Some correspondence is shorter than other pieces, but the brief introductions help them fit together coherently to give the book a readable flow. At times, I did wonder if the author could have organized the stories differently - perhaps by units? - but given the wide variety of units represented in these reports, that may have been difficult. The chronological format does work very well. (The detailed numerical and alphabetical indices are very helpful in finding mentions of specific units and helps the chosen format work. The table of contents is nice as well.)

As I finished this book, one of my first thoughts was that this book would be better for people who are at least somewhat familiar with the battle than for those just learning about it. Previous knowledge of this contest, either through other reading or by visits to the field, will help make it easier to understand the terrain features and unit locations mentioned throughout the book. In this regard, I do wish the book included at least one modern version of a battlefield map, but that is a minor quibble.   

I did find another review of this book; that reviewer appreciated this book because it uses the soldiers' own words to describe the severity of the fighting at Perryville, a very valid point. That person then took a position contrary to mine and would like to have read this book prior to visiting the battlefield. I must acknowledge that perhaps my initial comment is applicable to any book on any battle, not just this one. It may simply be another "chicken or the egg" scenario, but my "gut feeling" on this one was that it would be especially valuable for those who already have some knowledge of this battle. 

This work takes a different approach of describing the battle than most books do and it does give a more personal, rather than scholarly, view of the fighting and the effects it had on the men, land and town. The words the soldiers used give this book a different feel than most books, which usually feature just a few quotes. Their recall of what happened on the field, as well as the "when" and "where" also add more evidence to consider for those trying to interpret the battle. 

This book is unique among the Perryville literature I'm familiar with and definitely belongs on the bookshelf of anyone interested in this fight. I certainly recommend it without hesitation.

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