Occasional Paper #20. "Dear Wife" The civil War Letters of Chester K. Leach, compiled and edited by Edward J. Feidner. illustrated, 243 pp., 2002. The Center for Research on Vermont, University of Vermont, Burlington. Paperbound. $16.
"Dear Wife" is the third modern publication related to the 2nd Vermont Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War. Chester Leach's letters, coupled with Wilbur Fisk's letters to the Montpelier Freeman, and Paul Zeller's recently published history of the regiment provide the most comprehensive overview of any of Vermont's Civil War regiments available to the general reading public. Its publication is greatly appreciated!
While Wilbur Fisk's letters to the Montpelier Freeman were readily available to the public, what he related was not a reflection of his true reactions to life in the army. His private letters and diaries are much more candid, portray a personal feeling that never made it into print, one example being the period he was AWOL from the service. Chester Leach's letters, on the other hand, were never intended for public consumption, and more accurately reflect on the daily life of a soldier in the Old Vermont Brigade.
Paul Zeller, who spent eight years researching and writing his history of the 2nd Vermont Infantry, says Leach's letters are "priceless," and his study of the Second Vermont Regiment would have been severely impacted without those letters. He further wrote that Leach's letters "show the difficulties of a citizen soldier fighting a war, while at the same time trying to run his farm back home. Without Leach's letters, Vermont would have a large hole in her [military] history."
Leach's letters quite vividly describe the challenges to a volunteer soldier in the field and his family at home. His descriptions of the routines of camp life, coupled with his interest in affairs at home, provide the reader with an intimate view of a common soldier's complete life, not just life in camp. Too many letters home from Civil War correspondents only show the soldier's view of the war and his camp-mates, and not what was happening on the home-front.
While his lucid descriptions of battles he participated in are usually quite brief, he provides the impact they have on him and the men in his company, which is exactly what the folks back home are truly interested in, ….did my son [father, husband, or brother] survive another battle?…
Leach seldom wrote of politics, or grander strategy, but occasionally expressed his concerns about the conduct of the war. Writing from Alexandria, August 24th, 1862, in apparent frustration, he remarked that he had been in the same spot five months earlier, and he wanted to be told "what good we have accomplished in those five months. We have done more marching & more labors in fatigue work than before since we enlisted & now we are back again from where we started." There are a few similar comments in his letters, but most of his concerns were for day-to-day life, both in his camp and at home.
While the letters themselves are a treasure trove, the publication has some shortcomings. The "Who's Who" section in the back explains many of the players appearing in Leach's letters, but is not an adequate substitute for an index that would have helped provide the context in which they appear. In addition, while much of the detail in the biographical notes come from the Vermont Adjutant General's 1892 Revised Roster, much does not, and its source is not provided. Explanatory footnotes, especially for Leach's description of battles and the regiments movement, would have been helpful. Classifying this publication as an "Occasional Paper" probably exempts it from normal documentation standards, but it would have been nice to have them.
Professor Feidner and the staff of The Center for Research on Vermont are to be commended for their efforts in publishing Leach's Civil War letters. While a manuscript is available at the Vermont Historical Society, it would not have been readily available to the overwhelming majority of descendants of Green Mountain Boys, who live hundreds, if not thousands of miles from Vermont; they might never have had the opportunity to access them otherwise.
Aren't there hundreds of additional manuscripts out there somewhere, just waiting to be published?
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.