The personal approach to Civil War history is getting a boost in this sesquicentennial year. Not only in our historical narrative The Bloody Thirteenth (told via diaries, letters and memoirs) but in such as the following account of a young slave who escaped to the Union army in Knoxville a few months after the Fort Sanders fight:
“There is Jim Heiskell, a 13-year-old Tennessee slave who recounts how, during the spring of 1864, after a beating that lasted more than 30 minutes, he managed to escape into the protection of the Union Army in Knoxville, Tenn., his feet still chained. Of his enslavement he writes, ‘I was whipped three or four times a week, sometimes with a cowhide and sometimes with a hickory. . . . I would have staid on the plantation if I had been well used.’ (While African-American accounts of the war are richly presented in this series, they are often, as in this case, transcribed by literate whites.)”
As a Wall Street Journal reviewer sums up The Civil War: Told By Those Who Lived It:
“Nearly a century and a half later, with the legacy of the war still very much with us, ‘The Civil War’ allows us to return to the conflict anew, to encounter a spectrum of voices and experiences wider and more diverse than has ever before been collected in a single series. Ultimately the work places us at the war’s ground level, bringing us closer to the lived experience of Americans who endured this climactic period, providing a portrait more nuanced than could ever be condensed into narrative.”
Well, maybe. The portrait will always need a narrative to stitch it together. But it certainly sounds like the four-volume series will be worth reading, even at its extreme length of several thousand pages.