Editor’s Note: This review was also cross-posted at TOCWOC – A Civil War Blog.
Alderson, Kevin & Alderson, Patsy (editors). Letters Home to Sarah: The Civil War Letters of Guy C. Taylor, Thirty-Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers (The University of Wisconsin Press, November 7, 2012). 264 pages, 34 b/w photos, 4 maps, bibliography, endnotes, index. ISBN: 978-0-299-29120-4 $26.95 (Cloth).
Complete or almost complete runs of letters home from Civil War soldiers are a rarity. Finding a complete run of letters in the 21st Century is rarer still, but that’s exactly what the husband and wife editing team of Letters Home to Sarah: The Civil War Letters of Guy C. Taylor, Thirty-Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers found. Guy C. Taylor of the 36th Wisconsin Infantry, assigned to the hard fighting Union Second Corps during the Overland and Petersburg Campaigns, wrote steadily home to his wife Sarah and their young son Charley from March 1864 to July 1865, rarely missing more than a week’s time during the course of those 16 months except for sickness or movements. The result is an impressive, if sometimes hard to read, account of the last year of the war in the East by a soldier who changed measurably during his time at the front.
Editors Kevin and Patsy Alderson wrote an interesting Preface to Letters Home to Sarah, describing in detail the day they successfully bid on Guy C. Taylor’s 165 letters home at an auction near their current residence. Kevin Alderson, a high school history teacher and coach at the time, was sure he had found something special, but when he finished looking through what he had won in detail even he was amazed. The Aldersons started to transcribe the letters slowly, but soon realized the project would have to be put aside until retirement. They determined to release the book during the Civil War Sesquicentennial, and they succeeded.
The 36th Wisconsin, Guy Taylor’s regiment, was a late arrival to the Civil War. Mustered in on March 23, 1864, they joined the Army of the Potomac’s Second Corps during the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse on May 18, 1864. The regiment suffered 7 officers and 150 enlisted men killed and mortally wounded, as well as losing 3 officers and 182 enlisted men to disease, for a total of 342 men lost during the war by any cause. This doesn’t include the hundreds wounded badly enough to be out of the war for good. The unit suffered severely during the Siege of Petersburg along with the rest of their hard-worked Corps. On August 26, 1864, the day after the Battle of Ream’s Station , they were down to only 113 officers and men present for duty. The regiment had been stripped of its colors for its alleged actions in the battle, a situation Taylor describes in one of his letters. Through it all, the regiment soldiered on, eventually receiving its colors again and being present at the surrender of Lee and his men at Appomattox Courthouse.
Guy C. Taylor experienced some rather providential events which may have saved his life. He was rarely on the front lines, often in hospitals sick, and his descriptions of those times are every bit as interesting and detailed as his letters discussing the front at Petersburg. He also grew close to the regimental surgeons, and doing so allowed him to eventually obtain a more or less standing job to care for the surgeons’ horses, even when those surgeons were captured at Ream’s Station! Taylor also knew how to cook, a skill which further solidified his status as a non-combatant. Lastly, he always claimed in his letters that he was too sickly to carry a pack and rifle on the march for any length of time, something which would obviously preclude him from the day to day life of a front line enlisted soldier. Taylor was still close enough to the front that his observations of the fighting at Petersburg were often remarkably detailed.
As the war progressed, Taylor went from a lonely, sickly soldier who was unsure of himself and the cause into a relatively healthy individual with a clear job to do who was determined to stick with his regiment until the fight was finished. He didn’t have much use for McClellan men by the time the November presidential election rolled around. One of Taylor’s ongoing concerns was trying to get money home to his wife and young son safely. He routinely would send money and persistently asked his wife if she had received it through the mail. His largest sum sent at any one time was $50, a massive loss for a farming family in 1864-5 if it didn’t come through. Health was also on Taylor’s mind, typically leading off his letters in fact. He consistently updated his wife on his condition, trying to reassure her he was okay. Family trouble seemed to be minimal during the 16 months Taylor was away, but he was more concerned with his “family” at the Temperance Lodge who had seemingly run astray of their ideals. Sarah even rewrote one of his letters to present to their brothers and sisters at the Lodge to give them hope and keep them on the right path. Taylor insisted he tried to stay away from alcohol in an army which frequently abused the substance. In the end, Taylor was able to survive his ordeal, and his collection of letters is amazingly consistent and descriptive.
One issue with the book is Guy Taylor’s utterly atrocious spelling. The Aldersons took a minimalist editing approach, only changing of to off, now to know, and one to own among Taylor’s frequent misspellings. While I do appreciate the desire to allow a soldier to express himself in his own unique style, Taylor misspelled words in almost every sentence, and very badly misspelled more than a few of those. In several cases I had no idea what he was even trying to say. It would have been nice to see a little more editing for clarity, but this is a minor quibble. Once you start reading, you get used to Taylor’s idiosyncrasies, such as spelling us as “ous”, and they almost become endearing.
Letters Home to Sarah features the 165 letters of Guy C. Taylor neatly divided into chapters, each letter in chronological order. The annotation was just right, with enough explanation for those perhaps unfamiliar with this portion of the war in the east, or the Civil War in general. There were typically no more than 2-4 end notes for each letter. That the notes followed each letter was also a welcome decision, allowing the reader to quickly scan to the end of the letter and determine what else needed to be explained.
The book features four appendices. The first two consist of the rosters of the 36th Wisconsin’s field and staff as well as Taylor’s Company F. I believe these were pulled from James Aubery’s regimental history of the 36th, first published in 1900. The third appendix displays images of some of Taylor’s actual letters, a nice humanizing touch to close out the book. The fourth and final appendix contains images of a Sarah Taylor’s rewritten version of one of Guy’s letters, presumably to be used to address their temperance lodge in Wisconsin. Sarah corrected the majority of Guy’s misspellings in her rewrite.
The two page bibliography was rather thin, but is acceptable for a book in this format. I would have liked to have seen a few more books on the various portions of the Petersburg Campaign. Some of the editors’ descriptions of various battles during the Siege of Petersburg could have been improved slightly. The index was functional and listed the major people and places in Guy Taylor’s life.
Letters Home to Sarah, a collection of 165 letters from Union soldier Guy C. Taylor to his wife Sarah and their young son Charley from March 1864 to July 1865 is a welcome addition to the long line of published soldiers’ letters. Students of the war in the east in 1864-65 will want to own this book. Students of Wisconsin’s contributions to the Civil War will also find this one appealing. Those interested in hearing the voice of the common soldier and how his experiences changed him during the war will find this book of great interest. Those new to the Civil War who might have interest in Taylor for other reasons will find the annotation to be sufficient to understand what Taylor is discussing in his letters. This is a well done book which brings to life the thoughts and feelings of a soldier writing home during the Civil War. It is recommended.