Reading Matters

Frye Gaillard: A Southern Family’s Civil War Letters

Frye Gaillard’s great-great grandfather and his two sons were Confederate officers during the Civil War. But Gaillard, now 68, is the first generation in his family to view the Civil War through the lens of civil rights. This very same war his Southern forefathers viewed as “our most beloved war.”

Gaillard, a former Observer staffer and the author of more than 20 books about Southern history, politics and culture, now teaches at the University of South Alabama in Mobile. In “Journey to the Wilderness” War, Memory, and a Southern Family’s Civil War Letters” (New South Books, $23.95), he excavates the war through his family’s letters, seeking to understand what the war was actually like for his ancestors. And what he discovers is that almost nothing fits the notions of gallantry and courage his family had passed down.

“Oh this terrible war!” wrote Thomas Gaillard in 1862, after the bloody Battle of Shiloh. “Who can measure the troubles -- the affliction -- it has brought upon us all?”

And Franklin Gaillard, Oct. 14, 1862, after the battle of Sharpsburg:

“I am afraid I am going to suffer this winter. I have neither a blanket or woolen clothing of any kind. I am anxious to get me a pair of boots... .”

The letters also reveal the emotional anguish suffered on the battlefield and on the homefront. The packages mailed with a few comforts of home that never made it to the line. The letters that went astray. The agony of not knowing how your loved ones were faring at home or at war. The courage to face each hour as if it might be your last.

There was also the rampant destruction of property by the Union Army.

“The Yankees both times that they occupied the town made it a hospital for their wounded,” writes Franklin Gaillard to his wife Maria, describing the Alsop residence in Fredericksburg, Va.. “The bookcases, sideboards, wardrobes, chairs, chandeliers, in fact everything were broken up in the most wanton manner.”

In addition, 20 or 30 Yankees were buried in the Alsop gardens. And worse, “four or five cannon balls had been shot through the house.”

These letters provide quite a different picture than the romance of battlefield re-enactments. These letters will take you out of the clouds and down into the swamps and creeks these men waded, often barefooted and blistered.

Frye Gaillard has done a great service by publishing these heartbreaking letters from three men who recorded their thoughts on the battlefield and the many relatives who waited at home, sometimes in vain. He has helped us accept the fact that pain -- both physical and mental -- far exceeded the so-called glory of that horrible war.