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Book Review: Remember me to all the friends: Civil War Letters from George W. Harwood Massachusetts 36th Regiment edited by Janet M. Drake

Drake, Janet M. Remember me to all the friends: Civil War Letters from George W. Harwood Massachusetts 36th RegimentDamianos Publishing. (2022). 360 pp., illustrations, maps. ISBN: 978-1-941573679 $29.95 (Paperback).

Rare is the book containing letters and/or diaries of a soldier who served out his entire term without missing a day.  George W. Harwood of the 36th Massachusetts Infantry was just such a man. He served in the Union Army for nearly three years, and through it all he never had to leave the front for sickness or wounds, only missing small periods of time on furlough and recruiting duty.  In Remember me to all the friends: Civil War Letters from George W. Harwood Massachusetts 36th Regiment, editor Janet Drake carefully laid out and annotated Harwood’s remarkable set of letters home to his family from August 1862 to June 1865.

Editor Janet M. Drake is not a direct descendant of George Harwood. Instead, Harwood was Drake’s great-grandfather’s cousin.  Her family received the letters from Frances D. Martin, Harwood’s great-niece, their relative, and friend. Clearly Drake took a loving interest in these letters and takes pride in continuing the legacy of their careful preservation.  Like many of us (yours truly included), Jan Drake is not a professional historian, having obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Chemistry and a Master’s Degree in Library Science.  The latter degree propelled the editor to a lifelong career as a librarian in university, corporate, and public libraries. Her passions are traveling and history, which mirrors nicely her work on the widely traveled Union Ninth Corps in this book.

George W. Harwood served nearly three years in the Union Army, all of it with the 36th Massachusetts, a regiment in the Ninth Corps.  Diligent students of the Civil War will note with excitement, as I did, the Ninth Corps’ extensive travel history.  Even more exciting, Harwood was with his regiment almost the entire time it existed, only missing a few weeks on furloughs and a slightly longer stretch recruiting in the Spring of 1864, which allowed him to miss the bloody fighting at the Wilderness and the early days at Spotsylvania Court House.

Briefly, Harwood joined the 36th Massachusetts in August 1862 as a private, writing his first preserved letter home on September 4, 1862.  The 36th moved to the seat of war and narrowly missed the bloody Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, arriving just a few days later and getting assigned to the Ninth Corps.  This was a relationship which would last through the end of the war.  They stayed with the Army of the Potomac as part of the Ninth Corps and witnessed the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862.

Harwood also participated in the embarrassing Mud March of early 1863.  Eventually the Ninth Corps was moved west to Kentucky, where they stayed from March-June 1863 before being sent with a portion of the Ninth Corps to the Siege of Vicksburg.  Harwood and the 36th manned the portion of the Union line facing east to protect the Union soldiers besieging Vicksburg from an attack on their rear.  They were involved in the Battle of Jackson, Mississippi, where Harwood received the first of two flesh wounds he suffered during the war.  In August 1863 the 36th moved back to Kentucky and eventually to East Tennessee in the vicinity of Knoxville.  Here they were involved in the Knoxville Campaign and the Siege of Knoxville.   Harwood received his second flesh wound, this time in the neck, on the Union retreat to Knoxville. The Ninth Corps emerged victorious over the veterans of James Longstreet’s famous First Corps, Army of Northern Virginia.

Harwood was involved in a recruiting trip back to Massachusetts in early 1864, missing the beginning of the Overland Campaign at the Wilderness, only returning after the Battle of Spotsylvania began.  From then on Harwood participated in all the battles of the Army of the Potomac and the Ninth Corps, including Cold Harbor, many battles at the Siege of Petersburg, and the Appomattox Campaign. In 1864 Harwood’s longevity and character began to pay off.  He received promotions to sergeant in January 1864 and then to 1st Lieutenant in June 1864.  He commanded various companies of the 36th Massachusetts from that point until after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Harwood received his discharge in June 1865.

Throughout the letters, George W. Harwood asks about those he loves at home and gives news about other men from his hometown of North Brookfield, Massachusetts.  Sadly, many of these men were wounded and killed during the war, including some of Harwood’s close friends and relatives.  He was instrumental in getting the effects home for several of his friends who were killed in battle. He often stresses his belief in God and his desire to have his family place their trust in God, especially his father.  Harwood would occasionally ask about how things were progressing on the family farm, often asking how his colt was doing in his absence. He was always interested in the doings of his family and friends, and as the war drew to a close he asked more and more about various potentially single women. As the war progressed Harwood was assigned duties as an orderly sergeant and later as a company commander which necessitated much writing on his part.  He often wrote long letter home with a lot of detail of soldier life.  Whether he is discussing his amusement at soldiers standing in knee-deep water after digging their tent into the ground or his interactions with other officers and men, Harwood never fails to have an interesting comment on something in almost every letter. In addition, his letters act as a sort of unofficial itinerary of the 36th Massachusetts throughout the war.  His letters written during the Siege of Petersburg will prove invaluable in terms of placing the regiment at various points in the campaign. For example, readers learn Harwood and the 36th Massachusetts were stationed at Fort Rice from November 1864 to at least February 1865 based on the location he lists at the top of most of his letters.

Though this book is fantastic in terms of the letters’ content and the editors’ knowledge of the Civil War, there are some oddities which should be discussed. Before I get into those, here is Drake’s explanation to her approach in her Introduction: “Everyone who has worked with the letters has kept the wording, spelling, and punctuation as close as possible to George’s writing. I have kept a letter format similar to the originals to preserve as much as possible the experience of reading letters written from a military camp. Punctuation in the nineteenth century was not yet standardized, so often it is missing entirely. A handwritten letter also is spaced more loosely than a printed one. Therefore, when it is necessary for the reader to easily understand George’s thinking, I have kept a space between words instead of inserting the punctuation which a modern reader would expect. When necessary for clarity I have sometimes added words in [square brackets]. George’s letters are in roman (non-italic) font (for clarity) and my explanations and context notes are in italics.”

This is mostly fairly standard and it works very well.  The more you read the more you get into the cadence Harwood used in his writing. There are oddities, however, with the annotation method.  There are no standard footnotes or endnotes in the book.  Instead Drake explains what Harwood means in italics after each letter.  It works just fine but is decidedly non-standard in approach.

In addition, Drake refers to all regiments in archaic fashion, calling the 36th Massachusetts the “Massachusetts Thirty-Sixth,” doing the same for all other regiments mentioned in the book.  It isn’t wrong, per se, given Civil War era people themselves often referred to units in this manner.  But it is a bit jarring to see repeatedly if you have any background in reading Civil War books.

Lastly, Drake’s interpretation of a few battles seems just slightly shy of the mark.  For instance, on page 317 George is clearly describing the March 25, 1865 Battle of Fort Stedman.  He mentions: “Saturday forenoon.   We were aroused this morning at 4 o’clock by a charge on our right nearly in front of Meads Station. the rebs drove in our Pickets + I think took one of our Forts… it lasted from 4 to 8 in fact it has not wholy ceased yet.” “Saturday forenoon” is the morning of Saturday, March 25, 1865, which is the day the Battle of Fort Stedman began.  Meade’s Station is directly behind Fort Stedman on the US Military Railroad.  Harwood very accurately describes what happened at the Battle of Fort Stedman. As a fellow member of the Ninth Corps, he was stationed only slightly farther to the left, or south, of the engagement.  Drake mentions in italics “this engagement took place just before the Battle of Fort Stedman on the western end of the line, on March 25.”  But Harwood was in fact describing his first reaction to the Battle of Fort Stedman itself. This sort of thing is rare but does occur in several places.

Despite the minor issues mentioned above, this was a FANTASTIC book.  Harwood’s letters alone are worth reading in any format.  The editor clearly did her research and cared deeply about getting things right.  Despite a few minor quibbles, she did just that. Her choice of editing worked well and allows modern day readers to clearly understand a Civil War soldier’s letters home.  It seems obvious the Editor’s lifelong work as a librarian positively impacted the research done to find and catalog the wide number of people, places, and events George Harwood experienced in his nearly three years of army life in the Union Ninth Corps. As just one specific example, anyone who knows about and uses the Lytle-Holdcamper list of Merchant Steam Vessels of the United States 1790-1868 when trying to identify Civil War era steamships is doing their homework.

The maps in the book are minimal but very effective for this sort of study.  At the beginning of many chapters a regional map of the area where the 36th Massachusetts’ location was added.  Important sties mentioned in George’s letters are included and marked prominently on the map.  Illustrations abound, including images of George Harwood and some of the many people he mentions in his letters. These were well done and were positive contributions to the book.

There are numerous appendices in the book which are extremely helpful to remind the reader where Harwood was and what he was doing throughout the war.  Harwood also mentions many of his extended family.  In addition to bracketed reminders in the text, an appendix covers the family trees of this soldier’s extended family.  Several including his brother-in-law Freeman Doane were also soldiers. “Appendix III” is the Bibliography, which would traditionally just be listed as a bibliography rather than as an appendix.  Here it is clear the editor did a lot of deep reading to better explain Harwood’s letters.  Highlights include the Official Records, a must in any study of the Civil War, William Marvel’s biography of long time Ninth Corps commander Ambrose Burnside, Earl Hess’ book on the Knoxville Campaign of 1863, and Henry Burrage’s regimental history of the 36th Massachusetts, originally published in 1884.

Remember me to all the friends: Civil War Letters from George W. Harwood Massachusetts 36th Regiment is one of the better books of soldier’s letters I’ve read over the years.  Anyone with an interest in first person accounts of the Civil War will want to own this book.  Those with an interest in the Union Ninth Corps will find it even more fascinating.  At $29.95 it is very reasonably priced for the content it contains. George Harwood was in many hot places on the battlefield and experienced a lifetime’s worth of travel over three years in the army and lived to tell the tale. Editor Janet Drake has lovingly and carefully taken Harwood’s letters and presented them in an engaging and easy to read fashion.  We as readers are all the richer for it. Harwood discusses all manner of things with his family back home and often reflects on his time in the army and what it means for him to have gained this life experience at so young an age. This book also serves as a fine itinerary of the 36th Massachusetts’ travels during the Civil War, as Harwood was with the unit from their muster in until his muster out several months after Appomattox.

Note: A free PDF version of this book was provided for the purposes of this review.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Lisa Fulton February 25, 2023, 12:39 pm

    Brett, this is a really helpful book review. I will surely read Janet Drake’s book – but reading your analysis is especially instructive to someone like me. Thanks for the review, and it’s great to see a new post on your blog.

    Lisa Fulton

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