Welcome the Hour of Conflict: William Cowan McClellan and the 9th Alabama

Edited by John C. Carter University of Alabama Press, 2007, $51.75

Youngsters of limited experience and horizons found themselves hundreds of miles from home during the war, surrounded by strangers with unfamiliar habits.Tens of thousands of farm lads in R.E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia suddenly faced adaptation to a quasi-urban setting:Wherever the army went, its camp became the Confederacy’s second-largest “city.”One byproduct of bringing together so many young men from disparate origins proved deadly: Disease killed thousands when they ran afoul of germs foreign to their systems.

In a more positive vein,exposure to new people and customs fascinated many Civil War soldiers.Their letters are full of remarks about cities and farms that were different than their home places—and most of them compared the women they saw to women at home.Alabamian William McClellan’s letters contain some of the most colorful observations about Virginia females recorded by any 1860s visitor.

In October 1862,McClellan sent a letter from the outskirts of Winchester to his brother in Alabama. “We got acquainted with some beautiful women,” he wrote. He found one so fetching that he hoped “to live with her when this war is ended.”That enchantress earned what must have been a glowing Alabamian accolade:“She is as pretty as a spotted dog.”

In January 1863, after a month spent near Fredericksburg,William considered the women there less “dignified and reserved” than Alabama females.“I have yet to find a lady about Fredericksburg that will not let a man kiss and hug them,” he wrote.

A Fredericksburg woman who married a Mississippi soldier prompted another Alabama colloquialism. “I think she has driven her ducks to a bad market,”William declared.“He will have to leave her behind when we leave here.”

Camp followers surrounding the bivouacs that winter gave McClellan further opportunity to tell his sister about army life. In describing a soldier-staged theatrical that spoofed Federal commanders,McClellan reported “a very good many ladys in attendance, that is they Wore dresses, not much of the Lady.”

The Yankee women they saw en route to Gettysburg impressed the Alabamians not at all.McClellan described them as a “God-for-saken set….All curse like men…wear their shoes without stockings.They look very nice sitting astride of an ox with a pole in their hand about 30 feet long.”

The most historically significant description among William McClellan’s gallery of Civil War women concerns the famous Valley spy,Belle Boyd. Fictioneers cannot resist portraying Boyd as a dashing and bewitching sylph.She impressed McClellan by virtue of her wardrobe and her knowledge. In person, though, he found that Boyd was “a large portly Lady” with “features rather coarse.”

It would be hard to review William McClellan’s letters without mentioning his quaint Deep South epigrams.They ought not to obscure,however,given the high value of his testimony on matters of larger consequence.As a member of the 9th Alabama of General Cadmus Wilcox’s Brigade,McClellan fought all across Virginia. His descriptions of Wilcox and analyses of his style make this perhaps the most important source on that interesting fellow.His glowing opinions of Wilcox gain credence from evidence that McClellan was by no means routinely worshipful of authority. He concluded, for instance, that another superior was “fit for nothing higher than the cultivation of corn,”and called two generals “old grannies.”

The letters go on at length about important military topics,among them executions,morale,desertion, ordnance,discipline and the treatment of enemy civilians.McClellan’s battlefield reports include Dranesville, Williamsburg, Seven Pines, the Seven Days, Fredericksburg,Chancellorsville,Gettysburg and the Crater.

The best battle content in the book concerns Chancellorsville,especially the action around Salem Church.Wilcox and his brigade had their finest day of the war there, throwing themselves into a blocking position between Lee’s army and a Federal force moving west from Fredericksburg.

McClellan’s letter on Salem Church describes a visit after the battle to a house full of wounded New Jersey soldiers.The two monuments that stand near Salem Church today honor New Jersey regiments. One includes a bronze plaque with a nice touch— a tribute to the brave Alabamians who opposed the Jerseymen in 1863.Those monuments are,sadly,now well nigh invisible in the midst of a sea of schlock.

Welcome the Hour of Conflict demonstrates the appalling fact that university press books of much bulk have broken through the $50 barrier. The trend toward a limited edition in cloth, to be followed promptly by more affordable paperback versions, is enough to make a bibliophile weep.Because William McClellan’s letters make uncommonly good reading, and contribute substantial important historical evidence,this is an instance that warrants swallowing the fat price tag.


Originally published in the November 2007 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.