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Review: Civil War Talks: Further Reminiscences of George S. Bernard & His Fellow Veterans

SOPO Editor’s Note: This review was cross-posted at the same time at TOCWOC – A Civil War Blog.

Bernard, George S.  Newsome, Hampton (ed).  Horn, John (ed). Selby, John G. (ed). Civil War Talks: Further Reminiscences of George S. Bernard & His Fellow Veterans. (University of Virginia Press: July 2012). 512 pages, 3 b&w illustrations, 16 maps, bibliography, footnotes, index. ISBN: 978-0-8139-3175-3 $35.00 (Hardcover).

Civil War Talks: Further Reminiscences of George S. Bernard & His Fellow Veterans is a follow-up volume to George S. Bernard’s famous and still in print War Talks of Confederate Veterans, a collection of reminiscences from the 12th Virginia veteran.  A lot of things had to happen for this volume to come together the way it has, including an amazing discovery and two groups of editors joining forces to complete it.  Civil War Talks is an important new book, lucky to ever see the light of day, which brings together a multitude of first person accounts from Confederate veterans over the course of the entire war.

George S. Bernard’s War Talks of Confederate Veterans, published in 1892, was filled with first person reminiscences of the Petersburg, Virginia native and his friends and comrades.  Focusing mainly on the Siege of Petersburg for obvious reasons, the book was a massive success and remains a treasure trove of first person accounts to this day.  Now imagine finding a never published Volume 2 of these reminiscences in roughly the same format in your mail over 120 years after the first volume was published…and with its creator over 100 years in the grave.  That’s exactly what happened this summer when I opened a package from the University of Virginia Press and was delighted to find Civil War Talks: Further Reminiscences of George S. Bernard & His Fellow Veterans.

Postwar reminiscences long removed from the scene of action could be wildly inaccurate and skewed to place the author in the best possible light.  George S. Bernard of the 12th Virginia, a lifelong denizen of Petersburg, Virginia, was an amazing exception to this rule.  His War Talks of Confederate Veterans was dedicated to finding the truth, even allowing statements from people hostile to his former commander and associate William Mahone.  Many of the reminiscences originated as “war talks” at the A. P. Hill Camp of Confederate Veterans in Petersburg, Virginia, of which Bernard was a member and oftentimes a speaker, in the 1890s.

Bernard had collected a large amount of material for a proposed Volume 2 which he was unable to publish before his death.  Many of these items found their way into Richmond and Petersburg newspapers, especially the Petersburg Daily Index-Appeal, around the turn of the century.  Some were eventually published in more popular and widespread publications like the Southern Historical Society Papers.  Others still were only available in George Bernard’s scattered papers.  Using two rough drafts Bernard created for his volume 2 and searching through all of Bernard’s papers, the editors pulled together all of the items they could find and added other somewhat obscure reminiscences where it made sense to do so.  They avoided publishing items already easily available in other sources.  Their goal was to bring to light almost forgotten reminiscences of the Civil War from a man who had what must have seemed like an almost inexhaustible supply.

The editors, John Horn, Hampton Newsome, and John Selby, did not originally start out as a threesome intent on putting together a single book.  Horn and Newsome were working on a book which feature Bernard’s personal memoirs and war diary, while Selby was working from a newly found cache of Bernard papers discovered in Roanoke, Virginia in 2004, papers long thought destroyed.  It is a credit to all of these men that they joined forces to produce a stunning and important new book of first person accounts which are again widely available to students of the Civil War.  John Horn is the author of an overview of the Petersburg Campaign which was written for the “Great Campaigns of the Civil War” series in the 1990s.  Hampton Newsome is the author of Richmond Must Fall: The Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, October 1864.  I am less familiar with Professor Selby of Roanoke College, but I do appreciate his willingness to work with Horn and Newsome to produce a better book than either camp could have produced on their own.  For some great background on how this all came together, see this online article from the Roanoke Times.  In addition, note that the George S. Bernard Collection has been digitized and is freely available online at the History Museum of Western Virginia.

Fascinating background out of the way, let’s get to the meat of this book.  This reviewer, as a student of the Siege of Petersburg, will be taking things slightly out of order.  George S. Bernard (did I mention he and the 12th Virginia originated in Petersburg?) wouldn’t mind I’m sure.  This second volume of War Talks is not quite as Petersburg-centric as the first volume, which was a treasure trove of information for anyone wishing to study the Crater.  Here, five chapters recount events from the lengthy siege with a sixth reserved for Appomattox, a campaign in which Bernard did not take part.

  • Chapter 7 focuses on the initial battles in front of Petersburg, including the Battle of Old Men and Young Boys, fought on June 9, 1864, just before the arrival of the two main armies.  Even more material for the Battle of the Crater makes its appearance here as well.
  • Chapter 8 covers what the Confederates called “the battles for the Weldon Railroad”, more commonly referred to as Globe Tavern by the Federals.  Bernard himself wrote what turned into a four part series in the Petersburg Daily Index-Appeal about the actions from August 18-21, 1864, Mahone’s Division, Weisiger’s Brigade, and the 12th Virginia having played key roles in this fighting.  The numerous statements from participants following the main essay make this chapter most like the original War Talks.
  • Chapter 9 looks at the Siege of Petersburg from August 27, 1864 to March 21, 1865 with a focus on the October 27-28, 1864 Battle of Boydton Plank Road, what Bernard calls the Battle of Burgess Mill.  Again Mahone’s men played a key role, with Bernard scouring post-war reports and maps to determine which Yankees his 12th Virginia was up qagainst in their nearly wildly successful flank attack there.
  • Chapter 10 is a hodgepodge of interesting accounts from the Siege of Petersburg which have nowhere else to reside.  Reminiscences of Bradford’s Battery, a scouting expedition behind Federal lines late in the campaign, and an interesting account of Lamkin’s mortar battery and its actions at the Battle of the Crater and elsewhere.
  • Chapter 11 finishes the Petersburg material, looking at the Fall of Richmond and Petersburg as well as Petersburg’s occupation by Union troops.
  • The Appomattox Campaign was a collection of materials which for once did not feature George Bernard, not necessarily a good thing.  The editors did a good job rounding up materials to finish out the book.  It seems Bernard solicited his former commander William Mahone’s recollections of the final campaign of the Army of Northern Virginia, recollections which seem questionable at best.  Mahone’s stories of his talks with Robert E. Lee may well just be that, stories.

Now that the end of the war has been covered in detail, I’ll switch up the traditional version of events by giving the much more well-known and popular years of 1861-1863 some lesser coverage.  Bernard was in almost every battle of the ANV from the Peninsula to the fall of Petersburg, missing only Antietam, Fredericksburg and Appomattox.  His wound at Crampton’s Gap on September 14, 1862 caused him to miss the rest of the fighting in that year.  The book begins with Bernard’s reminiscences of his regiment’s creation, their garrison of Norfolk and the destruction of the Navy yard there, and recollections of the first year of the war, mostly uneventful for his unit.  The next chapter details the Richmond Campaign of 1862, including the 12th Virginia’s somewhat controversial baptism of fire at the Battle of Seven Pines on June 1, 1862.  Later chapters cover the 1862 Maryland Campaign (Second Manassas is unfortunately skipped), as well as Gettysburg and the rest of the fighting in 1863.  Mahone’s Brigade was involved in some controversy on the second day at Gettysburg, staying put while other units suffered severe bloodlettings.  The Overland Campaign chapter is the last prior to the Petersburg material.  These non-Petersburg chapters take up the first 233 pages, while the Petersburg-Appomattox material is almost as long as the rest of the book.  Fittingly, the book still has as its focus the fighting around Petersburg, just as Bernard would have liked.

The book features numerous in-depth footnotes.  One of the great features is a short bibliography of almost every person mentioned by name in the book.  The editors did not have to go to this extreme level of detail to produce a winning book.  With this level of detail, a winning book just became even better.  Another great feature for those of you interested in sifting through old newspapers and magazines is the detailed list of exactly when and where this material was first published, and much of it was.  If the material had not previously been published, the editors mention which archival source they pulled it from.  Other notes define potentially confusing martial words for those who are new to the Civil War.  The maps were solid, typically going down to brigade level.  I would have loved to have seen regimental level detail, but they were more than adequate for what was not a micro-history of a specific battle.   Interestingly, there is no bibliography.  It is somewhat understandable given the nature of the book but an appendix featuring the dates and newspapers where these “war talks” were published would have been a nice touch.

Civil War Talks: Further Reminiscences of George S. Bernard & His Fellow Veterans, filled with Confederate reminiscences not readily available until now, appears around 100 years after George Bernard’s death.  The editors of this book have done Bernard proud, completing his dream long after his passing.  Students of the Petersburg Campaign, the Army of Northern Virginia, and first person accounts of the Civil War will want to own this book.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say this is one of the most important new books on the war to come out in the past decade.  Items long forgotten by most, and some which may never have seen the light of day in any form, are now available thanks to some luck, some great editing, and the publishers at the University of Virginia Press.  This book is a winner.  Purchase it now and you won’t be sorry.

Note: I’d like to thank Hampton Newsome and John Horn for all they have done in educating people about the Siege of Petersburg.

Note: This book was provided gratis for the purposes of this review.
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