From Western Deserts to Carolina Swamps:
A Civil War Soldier's Journals and Letters Home

Edited by John P. Wilson
University of New Mexico Press, 2012, 296 pp., $40

Reviewed by Gordon Berg

John P. Wilson's skills as an archeologist served him well during a 25-year odyssey to uncover fragments of journals and letters written by Lewis Roe, a veteran of the antebellum army in the desert southwest and part of the 50th Illinois Volunteer Infantry as it marched with Sherman through Georgia and the Carolinas.

The search for Lewis Roe actually began when Wilson was a child in Knoxville, Ill. The town librarian was Roe's daughter.  She showed him some letters written by her father while in the field with the Army of the Tennessee.  Wilson was hooked and, over the years, he gathered other fragments of Roe's writings and discovered more details of his life.  

Wilson uncovered six fragments with which to work.  A small notebook describing Roe's  service in the southwest between June 1860-June 1861 with the 7thU.S. Infantry; original installments of a daily war journal Roe kept between October 1864 and March 1865; nine 1864-65 letters addressed to his wife; two post-war notebooks reviewing his regular army life and transcribing installments of his war journal; and a 1910 National Tribune article, a rare first-hand description of the battle of Valverde, NM on Feb. 21, 1862.  “We went into battle that morning Sixty men strong,” Roe recalled.  “We came out only 14 able to march.  21 were shot dead, the remainder wounded, but one man in our Co. escaped without a bullet mark.  I rec a slight wound in my let.  My coat was shot through the breast; it was a close call.”

To create a coherent story, Wilson had a lot of gaps to fill-in.  His search for sources and  corroborating evidence along with correcting misstatements and faulty memory could serve as a primer for dissertation writing graduate students.  During the background research for the chapter on the Atlanta campaign, in which Roe served with the 50th Illinois infantry, Wilson discovered “that Lewis Roe's journal entry for May 15 gave details about the Battle of Lay's Ferry that went beyond anything included in the primary sources...”  

Roe also participated in the occupation of Rome, GA, the battle of Allatoona, and marched to the sea with Sherman's bummers.  Roe's journal entry from Savannah on Christmas Day 1864  lamented “No pies or Chicken-fixins for dinner but only a little mush & sugar.  Our rations are not very regular yet.”  

Roe's regiment marched through Columbia, SC on Feb. 17, 1865.  In his journal, Roe described it as “a nice, pretty place.”  But he also confirmed that “The town is on fire & I am afraid it will all burn down.  The boys can hardly be controlled.”  Wilson discovered that Roe often did what many veterans did; projected themselves into events “giving the reader or listener the impression that the narrator took part in the event” when they  were only repeating what they had been told.

After the war, Roe's regiment participated in the Grand Review in Washington, DC, and was sent to Louisville, KY to await mustering out.  In a June 20, 1865 letter to has wife, Roe expressed his opinion of his commander.  “I do not know what may be thought of Sherman at the north, but no General that ever lived was ever thought more of than Billy Sherman is by this Army.”

By organizing Roe's writings and adding his own thoroughly researched commentary,  Wilson brings to light an infantry man's perspective, producing a valuable document and a lively read.

Gordon Berg is a past President and member of the Civil War Round Table of the District of Columbia (  His reviews and articles appear in the Civil War Times and America's Civil War, among other publications.

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