The Soldier's Pen Firsthand Impressions of the Civil War

Robert E. Bonner; Foreword by James G. Basker

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

272 Pages



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They are all infantrymen; none are commissioned officers. One is a German-speaking artist whose sole record is nineteen stunning watercolors that cover a year's enlistment. Another is a free black from Syracuse, New York. Six are from slave states, one of whom was a Unionist.

Drawing from the more than sixty thousand documents housed in the privately held Gilder Lehrman Collection, Robert E. Bonner has reconstructed the experiences of sixteen Civil War soldiers, using their own accounts to knit together a ground-level view of the entire conflict. The immediacy of the diaries and the intimacy of letters to loved ones bring these infantrymen's experiences to life, while the humor of an anonymous cartoonist from Massachusetts and the vivid paintings of Private Henry Berckhoff allow us to see their world through their eyes.

All published for the first time in The Soldier's Pen, the documents and images that Bonner weaves together powerfully re-create the day-to-day lives of the soldiers who fought and died for Union and Confederacy.


Praise for The Soldier's Pen

"Another book of Civil War letters? How can another collection of writings by Civil War soldiers be necessary? Well, Robert E. Bonner has successfully accomplished a distinctive and significant approach to the writings of Civil War soldiers. Foremost, he has furnished a tantalizing glimpse into some of the unpublished primary materials in the Gilder Lehrman Collection. This assemblage of more than 60,000 items is housed in the New York Historical Society in New York City. Philanthropists Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman have combined their resources and love of American history to create this remarkable treasure of material . . . Bonner has provided a notable anthology. It is well worth the read, for it weaves together commentary, moving writings of a variety of soldiers, and reproductions of their artwork."—Michael Russert, Civil War News

"In The Soldier's Pen, Bonner traces the course of the Civil War through the letter of a select group of participants from both sides. While the letters of politicians and generals have been in the public eye for years, it is the everyday volunteer whose insights are here on display . . . In fact, by focusing on the evolution of the war through these selected correspondents, Bonner can chart their emotions as they traverse the gamut from unrealistic patriotic fervor to resigned cynicism . . . In addition to the letters, The Soldier's Pen is illustrated with maps, drawings and cartoons. Highlighted are a series of 19 spectacular watercolors by Pvt. Henry Berckhoff, a German immigrant from New York who joined the regular Army when his volunteer regiment mustered out . . . Bonner's profile of Berckhoff suggests that the German artist might have not had much of a home to write to, and he had difficulty expressing himself in English. But his story and the reproductions of his primitive but moving works are, by themselves, worth the price of the book."—Raymond Leach, The Virginian-Pilot

"This book is composed of nearly 200 documents selected from the collection of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in New York. Bonner (Michigan State University) identified 16 Civil War participants and reproduced excerpts from their diaries or letters here with appropriate annotation and extensive interpretive comment. Among his writers are two Union officer, including one who held a commission in the United States Colored Troops (USCT), one Confederate officer, nine Union enlisted men (including one USCT member), and four Confederate enlisted men. Bonner presents their letters and diary entries within six chapters that cover the war chronologically and topically. A seventh chapter deals with the preservation of soldiers' writing during the postwar years. A color illustration section displaying watercolor paintings of wartime scenes by Henry Berckhoff, one of the writers, adds much to the book's value and interest, as do numerous smaller black-and-white illustrations by Berckhoff and other soldiers of less artistic ability. There are also images of some of the letters. The overall result is a delightful and very useful volume. Highly recommended."—S. E. Woodworth, Texas Christian University, Choice

"For anyone interested in viewing America's traumatic Civil War from the perspective of ordinary individuals who found themselves in the Union and Confederate armies, Robert E. Bonner's The Soldier's Pen: Firsthand Impressions of the Civil War will be a very rewarding experience. This expertly edited collection of letters and drawings mailed to the families and friends of sixteen 'typical' but quite diverse citizen-soldiers conveys a deeply human dimension to America's most dehumanizing war."—David Brion Davis, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and author of Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World

"Walt Whitman once said of the Civil War that 'The real war will never get in the books.' But the real war does get into this book, in the form of letters and diaries written by sixteen enlisted men, Union and Confederate, who tell it like it was."—James McPherson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom

"Robert E. Bonner has not only found some of the most riveting, impassioned, humorous, and powerful Civil War letters and journals ever written, he has brilliantly woven them together so that the overall collection reads like a first-rate work of literature. The Soldier's Pen is a masterpiece of scholarship and, without question, one of the most extraordinary anthologies of Civil War correspondence I have ever read."—Andrew Carroll, editor of The New York Times bestselling War Letters

"This riveting and moving compilation is the product of his access to the rich, privately held Gilder Lehman Collection of documents and illustrations . . . There are letters to wives and sweethearts that convey a sense of longing and loneliness. Other letters touch on the monotony of camp life, the comradeship of men under arms, and the novelty of entering different regions of the country. Some of the sketches drip with sarcastic exaggeration. As expected, the most disturbing and poignant images are conveyed by those who describe battles and their aftermath . . . excellent."—Jay Freeman, Booklist

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  • Robert E. Bonner; Foreword by James G. Basker

  • Robert E. Bonner is an assistant professor of history at Michigan State University and the author of two previous books on the Civil War. He lives in Hanover, New Hampshire.

  • Robert E. Bonner Joseph Mehling