Book review

Private Osborne, Massachusetts 23rd Volunteers

Edited by Frank B. Marcotte, pp 292, McFarland & Co, Jefferson N. C., and London

 

Review by: Allan Paterson Milne

 

Available for 29.25 from Shelwing Ltd, 4 Pleydell Gardens, Folkestone, Kent CT20 2DN. Telephone 01303 850501. Fax 01303 850162

 

All Civil War soldier's letters are alike and all are different. Fred Osborne spent most of his Civil War on the coasts of the Carolinas and Virginia, beginning with Roanoke Island, and ending - with a bad knee and dysentery - as patient then orderly on a Union hospital ship dealing with the casualties of the Petersburg campaign.

 

And although Osborne gives a good account of the December 1862 raid on Goldsboro, North Carolina, he spends little time on gory battle pieces. He was, after all, writing to his mother who had two of his brothers in the Union ranks to worry about. It is for the insight into soldier life that the letters have most value.


None of this makes Fred Osborne unique. But he was sixteen when he enlisted, and this made him just a little different. Witness his April 1862 letter to his mother, complaining she has sent too much - "Mother ... You trouble yourself too much. I have just cleared out my knapsack, for it is so warm here that it is very hard to carry ever so little in then and so I shall either have to throw them away or send them home." And about what she sent -"But as for towels mother, I have two that have never been used. You may think from that I do not wash much but we do every chance we can get ... If I had known that you had been going to send I should have told you a pair of suspenders, a black silk neckerchief, and a new military cap, for the ones we get out here from the quartermaster are not worth very much. But don't send anything till I write and tell you to". This seems a trifle harsh on mother. An older, more mature man might have kept quiet to spare her feelings, or traded the superfluous items. But he was a sixteen year-old soldier and no doubt had to put up with some ribbing from his messmates on the subject of over-protective mothers. Curiously enough he asks his mother to send him the three volumes of Casey's tactics in May 1863 as "our drill tactics are to be changed", a pointed reminder of how the civilian armies of the Civil War differed from most armies before or since. Do private soldiers normally ask their mothers to send them drill books?

 

The enemy would have been all too glad to receive "superfluous" items. To Osbome - "The Secesh are miserable looking chaps, they average larger than we do, but do not look half so rugged and are great braggers ..." This raises an interesting point. Did extra height make Johnny Reb seem more fearsome in attack?

 

During the Charleston campaign black soldiers too attracted his dismissive notice. "The boys used some of the nigs pretty rough' he tells us. No doubt the mere implication of equality was unwelcome to white soldiers, even white soldiers from abolitionist Massachusetts. Perhaps he felt differently after the 54th Massachusetts went in against Battery Wagner. but he does not say so.

 

Osborne, with a gammy knee and serving as a hospital orderly, mustered out on 26th September 1864. He had served out his three years and was just nineteen. Osborne's letters are all the more valuable for having survived untouched and forgotten until I990 when they were discovered in a house once owned by his daughter. There has been no opportunity to edit them to conform to 20th Century sensibilities.

 

Because there are some gaps, (after Fred is mustered out, for example, brother Nathan is still serving with Sherman) author Frank B Marcotte's narrative tells Fred's story using both the letters and other eye witness material. Despite one obvious boner (Civil War buffs will be aware that Grant did not secure the "unconditional surrender" of Pemberton or Lee) the integration of letters, narrative and other sources is skilfully done.

 

Whenever I pick up another book of Civil War letters. I always ask myself: 1) Am I going to learn something new? 2) Am I going to get a real insight into what the writer saw and felt? 3) Will this add another piece to the great Civil Way jigsaw which we unceasingly tackle but which we shall never complete? In this case the answer to all three is yes.