I’ve been working my way through this book lately, a few letters at a time. Nick K. Adams has carefully annotated and edited the one hundred letters that were sent home by his great-great grandfather, David Brainard Griffin, who enlisted as a private in the 2nd Minnesota Volunteers shortly after the start of the Civil War.
Griffin comes across as an endearing soldier, inquiring constantly after his three children, his wife, and the many relatives and neighbors in his southeastern Minnesota home. What interested me the most as I read the letters was the gradual shift in his mental state over the years.
The letters begin in September 1861 and go through September 1863, shortly before Griffin was killed at the Battle of Chickamauga. At first, he’s terribly homesick; almost every early letter features a few tears as he reads letters from home or thinks about his children. And like most people on both sides of the conflict, he entered it with confidence that the war would be over by springtime. But as the war drags on and his regiment pushes farther south, the flush of confidence wanes. Griffin’s answers to his wife’s questions about when he thinks he’ll be coming home grow less certain.
Griffin’s attitudes and intellect are about what you’d expect of a sharp but not highly educated Midwestern farmer. In his distaste for hypocrisy and his frank evaluations of the high-ranking generals, he’s like most of the small farmers I know today. When his friend Jery (never identified by last name) manages to obtain a medical discharge from the regiment under questionable circumstances, Griffin doesn’t overtly question his character or patriotism, but his unspoken reservations come through clearly. Like many on the Northern side, Griffin entered the war with little more than a general distaste for the institution of slavery, thinking more about the preservation of the Union. But after the Emancipation Proclamation, he gradually comes around to the belief that slavery should be abolished – more for the effect such an action would have on the Southern cause than for any moral motivation.
Nick K. Adams, who edited these letters, is a retired elementary school teacher who now engages in writing and storytelling. He is to be commended for the painstaking care with which he presents the letters; their original orthography is retained, but annotations help us follow the occasional confusing references and keep us informed about the place of the 2nd Minnesota in the larger context of the war. This volume of letters is a valuable addition to the original source material of the Civil War. While they will appeal mainly to the specialist and to the Civil War aficionado, the human emotions of these letters, and the rich detail of camp life they reveal, would make them a useful resource for writers and amateur historians seeking an in-depth understanding of daily life in the Western Theater.