Sunday, November 18, 2007

Joiner et al: "Little to Eat and Thin Mud to Drink"

[Little to Eat and Thin Mud to Drink: Letters, Diaries, and Memoirs from the Red River Campaigns, 1863-1864 by gen. ed. Gary D. Joiner (University of Tennessee Press, 2007). Cloth, 10 maps, photos, notes, appendices, bibliography. Pages total/main: 372/264 ISBN: 1-57233-571-8 $45]

As Voices of the Civil War series editor Peter Carmichael writes in the foreword, Little to Eat and Thin Mud to Drink is a fresh attempt at a new kind of campaign history, one constructed from the ground up. Rather than a narrative dominated by generals and politicians, this superbly edited compilation stresses the individual experience, the necessarily limited perspective of a single person caught up in the swirling chaos of battle, the passage of armies, or the remembrance of defining moments of the past.

General Editor Gary D. Joiner begins the study with a brief discussion of the historiography of the Red River Campaign. The writers of the first person accounts he and his team edited are then introduced. Each account [letters, diaries, memoirs, even a song] is prefaced with a nice contextual introduction by one of the editors. Of course, the value of works of this type are limited without explanatory notes and the ones provided in this volume are uniformly excellent. The notes are lengthy, numerous, and exquisitely detailed. Exhibiting the depth of the editor(s)' knowledge, they are enormously helpful to general readers and specialist researchers alike.

While readers with no prior familiarity with the Red River Campaign may run into some difficulties in understanding the larger picture1, Joiner and his team do a fine job of tying the individual experiences to the wider events of the campaign, and also to each other where possible. For instance, Consolidated Crescent Regiment soldier James Jarratt's Mansfield memoir2 is nicely dovetailed with that of a Vermont member of Nims' Battery. These two units faced each other almost head-on at Mansfield.

In an attempt to broaden our understanding of the conduct and consequences of the Red River Campaign, both military and civilian accounts were selected. Writings of participants below officer level are rare for this campaign, and their inclusion here adds greatly to the value of the study. Some selections serve as a counterpoint to prevailing wisdom. For example, while Edmund Kirby Smith is roundly criticized in the literature, the editors chose to include a private letter sympathetic to the commanding general, written by one of his staff officers to a family member3. On the civilian front, the diary of a young woman (Miss Sidney Harding) forced to flee her home is included, along with a commemorative song written by two local ladies. The memorial theme is most prominently examined in J.E. Hewitt's monument dedication pamphlet.

Unusual for a book of this type, Thin Mud is well stocked with cartography, photos, and other illustrations. Maps range from large area views to detailed tactical expositions. The Mansfield maps are particularly well done, both for their level of detail and for their close relationship with the text (e.g. Joiner placed numbers on the Mansfield maps, that, as indicated in his explanatory notes, correspond to places and events described in Jarratt's detailed memoir).

Five appendices provide both standalone information and supplementary materials. Orders of battle are included, along with a listing of Mississippi Squadron vessels and a helpful campaign timeline. Additional annotated Harding and Knapp diary entries are placed here.

A multifaceted work that delightfully exceeded my expectations, Little to Eat and Thin Mud to Drink is a uniquely valuable addition to the historiography of the Red River campaign. I heartily concur with Carmichael's stated hope that prospective Voices editors will seek to emulate for other campaigns the interpretive approach4 that Joiner and his team have so successfully employed with this one. Highly recommended.

Notes:
1 - For these readers, the campaign timeline included as an appendix should be quite helpful in this regard. For a quick but thorough introduction, I would recommend Ludwell Johnson's classic Red River Campaign: Politics and Cotton in the Civil War or Gary Joiner's One Damn Blunder from Beginning to End.
2 - Jarratt's remembrance is one of the finest personal accounts covering the Red River Campaign; it's only enhanced by the fact that the author grew up near the battlefield and is intimately acquainted with the landscape. Although written decades after the battle, his articulate account is richly detailed and challenges many of the established interpretations of events from the Battle of Mansfield.
3 - Lt. Cunningham's case is not persuasive, but it is illustrative of the fact that no officer is universally condemned.
4 - That's not to say this newer approach is better than more traditional ones. It's an added piece of the puzzle. When considered in isolation, it has relative deficits of its own, regardless of what one feels about the artificiality of narrative history.

3 comments:

  1. Andrew,

    Thanks for the review. Your comment about the "ground-up" approach is very interesting. I've been putting together a program about writing nonfiction for a local high school's creative writing class. and one of my major points is to encourage the students to consider what I call the "bottum up" approach rather than a "top down" approach. From my perspective, it's much more interesting - although it does require more work. It sounds like - from your review - that Dr. Joiner has definitely done that hard work.

    Happy Thanksgiving,

    Jim Schmidt

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  2. Jim,
    Yes, the approach requires a great deal more from the reader (and, like you say, much more work from the editor than one might think at first glance). It's not an 'easy' book to read by any means, and I probably wouldn't recommend it as a first crack at the campaign.

    DW

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  3. Hello Drew

    Thanks for the review. I'm very interested in this book. I've collected many in the series. A couple of the early ones are very collectible. It certainly seems that the publisher prints 3-4 a year and I think the quality continues to be pretty good. One thing for sure, they certainly provide the reader some material they may never get access to.

    Regards
    Don Hallstrom

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