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The Brothers’ War

March 2023
2min read

Civil War Letters to Their Loved Ones from the Blue and Gray

Edited by Annette Tapert; Times Books; 242 pages.

“All I desire,” wrote Philip Powers, an officer in the Confederate army, to his wife, “is to drive them from our soil and secure peace—I would not shed another drop. . . .” He was being magnanimous; the Union army had just been defeated at the First Battle of Bull Run, and Powers’s regiment had been credited in the Rebel newspapers with “turning the tide of victory” to the Confederacy. Later in the struggle he could not muster such liberality. “How long will a merciful God permit this war?” he asked his wife after the death of Gen. Jeb Stuart. “And will the wail of the woe that rises from bloody battlefields never cease?”

The Brothers’ War is filled with questions like these. The letters home are written by Union soldiers who find they hate the abolitionists as much as they do the Rebels and by Confederates who think every day of deserting and of a peaceful end to the conflict. The book captures the fear of the soldiers on both sides as well as the zeal of the idealists and the confusion of men fighting their brothers.

On every page there are stories of hardship and excitement, of practical jokes and inhuman horrors. A private in the Union army tells his brother how grave the tobacco shortage is and how he is forced to search for the “precious weed” in the pockets of dead Rebels. A Confederate officer tells his sister how one of his men, returning from battle wearing a salvaged Yankee overcoat, was shot through the heart by one of his fellow soldiers. After the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, a Rebel defiantly writes his wife to say, “I think the Yankees and the rest of mankind must soon come to the conclusion that the South cannot be subjugated.” And a Union son gives his mother an eloquent and moving account of his brother’s death at Gettysburg.

The letters are often ungrammatical and simple; they are also honest and straightforward. Tapert has arranged them chronologically, allowing us to see the gradual fading of excitement and high principle into the dusk of attrition and misery. In the beginning, moral certainty is the muse of many of these soldiers, both Union and Rebel; the pressing awfulness of death and battle replaces their cocksure abandon with pleas for survival. But the loss of idealism does not make for less exciting tales. We are treated to firsthand accounts of Bull Run and Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. We read the testimony of Union soldiers watching Rebels rifle through the pockets of the Federal dead, taking family pictures along with money and ammunition. We are told of Confederates disguised in Union uniforms, of what it was like to be a “Fighting Quaker,” and of bitter instances of racism on both sides. One Union soldier explains that his company hates the sight of a black “worse than a snake” and tells of the men throwing rocks and branches at blacks who cross their path.

We follow the lives of captured soldiers as well. “As I went strolling by a crowd,” a Confederate captain wrote to his wife, “I found a young, fine looking [Union] officer trying to trade off a neat . . . little pocket flask, silver mounted, for a half cake of bread.” The Rebel officer extracted a promise from the prisoner that he would not attempt to escape, then took his enemy to breakfast at a nearby farm. “He said I had fulfilled the scriptures, in that when I found mine enemy a-hungered I fed him.”

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