Army Life in Virginia: The Civil War Letters of George G. Benedict. Edited by Eric Ward. (Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2002. Pp. x, 246. Maps. Illus. Bibliography. Index. $26.95.)
Vermont, justifiably proud of the accomplishments of her Green Mountain Boys in the Civil War, owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to George Grenville Benedict for his "Vermont in the Civil War: A History of the part taken by the Vermont Soldiers and Sailors in the War For The Union, 1861-5," (The Free Press Association, 1886, Burlington, Vt., 1888), which even today is the basic work upon which most research is based and by which all others are compared. We read his books, we ask, "What does Benedict say?" we compare all other sources to him, we recommend him to descendants, novice historians and reenactors. We depend on him, but we do not know much of the man himself. Eric Ward has done an admirable job filling that gap in our knowledge.
George J. Stannard, who commanded the brigade which included Benedict's 12th Vermont, has rightfully earned esteem as the state's greatest soldier in the field, but as Ward explains in this work, without actually saying it, Benedict should get similar or greater laurels for his preservation of the Green Mountain Boys' participation in the war, and in this case, the nine months' regiments of the Second Vermont Brigade.
While this work does not rise to the level of a history of the regiment, neither Benedict in his original, nor Ward in the current publication intended it to be, it provides the setting for Benedict's letters, explaining the political, geographic and social aspects of life surrounding the regiment's career in simple language quite obviously backed up with a significant amount of research and a wide variety of documentation.
Benedict published versions of his wartime letters to the Burlington Free Press, edited and without additional commentary, in 1895, "in compliance with repeated requests from a number of my army comrades" to keep the regiment's history from "passing into oblivion." While the letters themselves were sufficient for the veterans of the regiment, they could fill in the blanks themselves, the lack of explanation causes some problems for modern readers.
Using the original letters as published in the Free Press, Ward has done an admirable job by adding the background necessary to give us a better understanding of the regiment's service in the defenses of Washington, and the brigade's forced march and gallant efforts at Gettysburg. In addition, his biographical sketches, pre and post-war, help explain Benedict's background and experience, and leaves no doubt that Benedict was the only person qualified to serve as Vermont's military historian, and the state was amply repaid in the trust it accorded him.
While Benedict's letters from the 12th Vermont were not among his more prolific or accomplished writings, they served a unique purpose at the time. Ward's efforts, in complementing Benedict's letters, will give future generations who will find themselves even more remote from the actual events, a solid foundation on which to understand these letters, and the warriors of the Civil War who wrote them and experienced the war first-hand.
Excellent job, Eric! Hopefully another is on its way.
Tom Ledoux is the creator and webmaster of the Vermont in the Civil War web project, VermontCivilWar.org. He has an M.A. in military studies (Civil War studies) from American Military University.
Available from Stackpolebooks.com