I was very glad to hear from home this morning. It is the first time since I left Otterville. We marched from Sedalia 120 miles....I almost feel anxious to be in a battle & yet I am almost afraid. I feel very brave sometimes & think if I should be in an engagement, I never would leave the field alive unless the stars & stripes floated triumphant. I do not know how it may be. If there is a battle & I should fall, tell with pride & not with grief that I fell in defense of liberty. Pray that I may be a true soldier.
Not since Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage have the trials and tribulations of a private soldier of the Civil War been told with such beguiling force. The Red Badge of Courage, however, was fiction. This story is true.
In Testament, Benson Bobrick draws upon an extraordinarily rich but hitherto untapped archive of material to create a continuous narrative of how that war was fought and lived. Here is virtually the whole theater of conflict in the West, from its beginnings in Missouri, through Kentucky and Tennessee, to the siege of Atlanta under Sherman, as experienced by Bobrick's great-grandfather, Benjamin W. ("Webb") Baker, an articulate young Illinois recruit. Born and raised not far from the Lincoln homestead in Coles County, Webb had stood in the audience of one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, become a staunch Unionist, and answered one of Abraham Lincoln's first calls for volunteers. The ninety-odd letters on which his story is based are fully equal to the best letters the war produced, especially by a common soldier; but their wry intelligence, fortitude, and patriotic fervor also set them apart with a singular and still-undying voice.
In the end, that voice blends with the author's own, as the book becomes a poignant tribute to his great-grandfather's life -- and to all the common soldiers of the nation's bloodiest war.
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
Civil War buffs will relish this extraordinary new history from Bobrick (Wide as the Waters), based on a collection of letters written by his great-grandfather, Benjamin "Webb" Baker. The letters date from 1861, when the 19-year-old enlisted in the Union army, to 1864, when he was honorably discharged a corporal. As a private of Company E of the 25th Regiment of Illinois Voluntary Infantry, Baker saw action at Pea Ridge, Ark.; Perryville, Ken.; Stones River, Tenn.; and Chickamauga, Ga.; and on Sherman's march to Atlanta. Repeatedly wounded, he was patched up and sent back to duty. That he survived the bad food, poor sanitary conditions and ghastly medical treatment (pus was considered a sign of health), let alone wounds sustained during battles that killed thousands, is remarkable. Webb's letters home are honest, affectionate and surprisingly good-natured considering what he endured. "We had a heavy skirmish in the evening....A ball struck John Hawkins square on the belt buckle. It made him grunt....He picked it up & is around every day now bragging that he is bullet proof," he wrote in 1862. Bobrick weaves excerpts of the correspondence throughout the narrative and includes his great-grandfather's letters in their entirety in an appendix to the book. This is a compelling story, rendered in vivid, graceful prose that should find an enthusiastic audience.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
There are no customer reviews available at this time. Would you like to write a review?
Simon & Schuster
July 26, 2004
Number of Print Pages*
Adobe DRM EPUB
* Number of eBook pages may differ. Click here for more information.
Excerpt from Testament by Benson Bobrick
In the aftermath of the battle, the men foraged and skirmished and waited for the next big fight. It rained for several days, then a light snow began to fall. "Rebs seem to be prowling over the country in every direction," Webb wrote on January 19. Bragg had reportedly been reinforced at nearby Shelbyville, "with 40,000 [new men], we are receiving reinforcements & there may be a battle. If we don't go to the rebs they will come to us." Either way, he didn't mind.
For Webb, Stones River had been just another battle -- an inconclusive battle in a long and inconclusive war. Though he had been in the midst of the action and his own regiment had lost ninety-six, he was remarkably matter of fact about it in his letter home. "There was a hard fight here," Webb reported on January 10, "a heavy loss but Rosecrans gained the victory & the rebs. are gone. McCook was driven back 2 miles by the massed force of the enemy on our right before we were reinforced. The secesh got our knapsacks & blankets. I have been having the chills. Am well now. I am better satisfied now that John's remains are at home." His mother hoped to visit him at Murfreesboro, where Rosecrans's army was encamped, but he advised her against it, as he expected to be on the move. "We are likely to follow the enemy right up," he told her, "& I hope we will keep at it till the job is done -- don't like to waste so much time. I don't mind fighting for my country if we will only do it but I hate to lay round while the work remains to be done."
On the 19th, as he stood on picket duty four miles south of camp, a Rebel appeared with a flag of truce and a sealed dispatch addressed to Rosecrans. Perhaps it had to do with a prisoner exchange; it was not for Webb to ask. On the 31st, his regiment began a three days' march through mud, rain, and snow to Franklin, where they hoped to take on Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Rebel cavalry commander, who was wreaking havoc on their lines of supply. Almost every major bridge and trestle on the Louisville & Nashville Railroad had been damaged, cars burned, engines destroyed. In one place, "a tunnel had been choked with rubbish to a distance of 800 feet." Forrest sped up to Harpeth Shoals on the Cumberland River, and Union troops pursued. There, it was wishfully reported, he had "got decently cleaned out & himself mortally wounded & taken prisoner" -- which wasn't so. Meanwhile, General Jefferson C. Davis had turned the command of his division over to one of his colonels and taken a cavalry brigade up to try to cut off Forrest's retreat. "We are in readiness to go to his support if he needs us," Webb wrote his mother. "If you hear of a fight near Franklin now you may know we are in it."
Around Murfreesboro the skirmishing was chronic, as the opposing armies scoured the countryside for food. The Union troops, on half rations, were soon at risk of scurvy, and even officers regarded onions and potatoes as luxury fare. Webb seems to have accepted his plight, as usual without much complaint; military and political issues were uppermost in his mind. "One of our parties killed 10 rebs the other day & got 80 prisoners," Webb reported, as well as "several wagons & 300 cavalry saddles & accoutrements...No set battle is expected till we get to Chattanooga, but every inch of ground between here & there will be contested so our advance will be slow but I think sure." Meanwhile, a few weeks before, he had written, "I wish we could move soon & talk less -- Somehow I hope the war will close before another summer passes -- I don't know how the settlement is to come but somehow I look for it to come." Like many others, he also expected the manpower advantage of the North to tell and put great hope in the new draft act. "How do the fellows up north like the conscription bill?" Webb asked his mother. "The soldiers like it I tell you. Hope those braggy fellows at home will all get pulled in." Lincoln had also just signed a bill to authorize back pay. "The talk is that we will get 4 months soon. It will not be before we need it."
Both developments gave the soldiers heart, but there was another kind of trouble in the ranks. The Emancipation Proclamation, when first announced, set off celebrations in many Northern cities, but it had not been greeted with complete enthusiasm by the troops. "[It] has stirred things up considerable," reported Webb. "Some of the boys are very bitter about it. They say that they did not come to war to free niggers, but I guess this will bring the South to a compromise. Anyway, I hope the war will soon be over." Though primarily a Unionist, he didn't object to the Proclamation itself as an executive act; indeed, as we know, he had accepted the possibility of it a year before. But it incited others to near rebellion all that spring. "There has been a good deal of deserting since," Webb confessed to his mother in early March, "but I guess it will stop now -- I understand that the law is to be executed to the limit on deserters, & that means death -- for my part I would as soon die any other way as to be set up against a stump & shot at."