Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Weary Life of a Soldier

Another letter from the collection I am working with currently. Major Benjamin F. Buckner of the 20th KY Inf. (US) writes to his fiancee Helen from Mississippi in the midst of the campaign in 1862. In this letter, he describes his appearance in the field -- no doubt greatly changed from the last time she had seen him off to war. Given Lee's posts this summer about Generals' appearance in the field, I figured this compliments (despite Buckner wearing Blue).

Camp Near Corinth Miss
May 24 1862
My Dear Helen,

Your idea of my personal appearance under the ___ circumstances is far
from correct. I wear a black wool hat, and my face is nearly of the same
color, my hair short, my mustache trimmed close, my whiskers cut off – beard of
about a weeks growth, (I have no time to shave oftener than once a week as you
may imagine, when I tell you that we have been in such a state of watchfulness
that I have not pulled off my sword for nearly two weeks)[.] My uniform
consists of a stiff pair of soldiers’ shoes minus the strings, a pair of coarse
army pants and a blouse without shoulder straps.
Actual service in the field dispels all the romance of soldiering. It is a
laborious drudging life for anyone of lower rank than Colonel, and I would
rather be a negro under Harrison Thompson (for the same length of time) than a
private soldier.

I think the last paragraph is fantastic. Because while Buckner serves in the Union army, he was still from a slaveowning family in Central Kentucky. So his comparisons, his worldview, his understanding of the essential meaning of drudgery is all drawn from that experience of growing up in a slave society. Harrison Thompson, as you may have guessed, was a large planter in Clark Co. Ky., Buckner's home county. These compairsons, this shared worldview, raise the question: how different are some of these Border State Unionists from their Confederate counterparts? The a later section of the same letter may shed some light on ideological differences. Buckner writes regarding a comment Helen's friend (and big-time Secessionist) Sally Moore had made. The comment was not recorded in Buckner's letter, but I gather it was something about hoping all the US troops would catch yellow fever from the Mississippi swamps.
I did not attribute it to any thing except that mania Secession which despite
her good sense, has taken possession of her mental faculties, perverting them
from the nobler purposes for which they were intended and which they [are] wont
to fulfill. I therefore dont hold her responsible for it, but hope on her account that she may be speedily convinced of the error of her ways. … Dont tell Sally any thing except that her remark was not offensives, as I really did not care a straw fact and like her too much to get angry with her about it.

Though Buckner believes secession is equivalent to madness, in the end he never questions Sally's (or any other secesh's) motives. Preserving slavery is, as his other letters reveal, his goal as well. He just understands the Constitution and the Union as the more secure, more conservative means of its preservation. And as wild and inappropriate a step as he believes secession to be, because he personally knows many of its proponents (including Helen and her family) and because, fundamentally, they fight for the same thing he can never bring himself to be angered at them. Love the sinner, hate the sin.

More to come from Ben later.

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