Army Life in Virginia: The Civil War Letters of George G. Benedict, by edited by Eric Ward
Mechanicsburg, Pa: Stackpole Books, 2002. x, 246. Illus., maps, biblio., index. $26.95. ISBN:0-8117-0139-5.
This is an improved version of George Benedict’s 1895 book, which was based on edited versions of the letters Benedict wrote during his brief service in the Army of the Potomac. Benedict was the editor of the newspaper The Free Press, published in Burlington, Vermont. In August 1862 the 36 year old editor enlisted in a Vermont militia company, the Howard Guard. One month later the company, was called up as part of the 12th Vermont Infantry, for nine months’ service with the Union Army. After periods of training in both Vermont and then near Washington, D.C., the 12th Vermont, brigaded with the 13th, 14th and 16th Vermont Regiments, did rear area and some picket duty with the Army of the Potomac during May and June of 1863. The 2nd Vermont Brigade, as it was called (it was the only brigade with regiments from the same state), finished its nine months with a flourish. At the end of June 1863, while the 12th Vermont continued to guard the Army’s supply trains, the other three regiments were called to Gettysburg, where they played a prominent role in the defeat of “Pickett’s Charge.” Benedict, who started as a private in the 12th Vermont, later became an officer serving on the staff of brigade commander George J. Stannard, was present at Gettysburg in that capacity. This work is based on the letters that Benedict wrote to and published in The Free Press during his time of service.
Being a newspaper editor, Benedict had the benefit of both a sharp eye for detail and some facility with the pen. His letters are generally easy reading, and are filled with great detail about the life of the common soldier. There are also lots of details about brigade movements, some minor skirmishes, and the places the brigade passed through. The letters concerning Gettysburg are interesting in a couple of ways. First, they reflect how even immediate recollections of events can be tricky. Benedict, for example, has the bombardment on 3 July beginning at 2 pm, about an hour later than most sources say it began. He also says the bombardment lasted for about 90 minutes, but has the infantry attack beginning while the artillery barrage is still going on. The battle scenes and the results are poignantly described. One striking vignette deal with a visit Benedict made to a field hospital on the night of 3 July, where he saw an exhausted surgeon, scalpel in hand fall asleep over one of his (hopefully unconscious) patients.
The book does have its weaknesses. Given the limited time Benedict was in the service, the scope of the book is also limited. Also, since Benedict was writing letters that he knew would be published, one has wonder whether or not he pulled his punches about some individuals. Finally, although Ward, the editor, does do a good job in providing supplementary information on a number of individuals Benedict mentions, his narration of general events does have some mistakes. Ambrose Burnside, for example, did not withdraw his men back across the Antietam Creek after A.P. Hill’s counterattack drove Burnside’s IX Corps away from Sharpsburg.
Taken all together, this is a reasonably good collection of letters. Given the limited scope of Benedict’s service, however, the book will be attractive mostly to Gettysburg buffs.
Reviewer: --R.L. DiNardo, USMC C&SC, Quantico
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