Army Life: From a Soldier’s Journal—Incidents, Sketches and Record of a Union Soldier’s Army Life, in Camp and Field, 1861–1864, by Albert O. Marshall. Edited and annotated by Robert G. Schultz (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2009).
Reviewed by William C. Winter
Albert O. Marshall was 20 years old in September 1861 when he left the family farm in New Lenox Township in Illinois to enlist in the 33rd Illinois Infantry. Riding the train south to Springfield, Marshall met the wife of the regiment’s colonel, and the conversation confirmed his choice. Col. Charles E. Hovey had been president of Illinois State Normal University, the state’s first public university, since its organization in Bloomington in 1857. “Normal” indicated its mission to train teachers. Hovey commanded the 33rd Illinois Infantry, the “Normal” Regiment. Marshall, recently a college student in Galesburg, Illinois, enjoyed the company of those who were formerly teachers or students, but he quickly recognized that most of the regiment came from “the best class of farmer boys, who were, many of them equal, if not superior, in intelligence and all soldierly qualities to their college comrades.”
For the next three years, Marshall maintained a journal from which, 20 years after the war, he wrote Army Life. In his introduction he acknowledges that he “sometimes felt inclined to erase the words of useful enthusiasm” as he prepared the journal for publication. Fortunately for us, he was generally successful in resisting editorial temptation. Occasionally, Marshall interpreted events or summarized outcomes with the benefit of hindsight, but throughout the narrative his writing style is characterized by a freshness that conveys the wonder of a young man first encountering a wider world. The details of camp life and day-to-day events dominate Marshall’s story.
Marshall rarely saw combat. From September 1861 to March 1863, the Normal Regiment served around Arcadia and Pilot Knob, with occasional forays into Arkansas. In April 1863, the regiment joined Grant’s army to capture Vicksburg. Marshall saw little action in Grant’s campaign until May 17, when he participated in the attack at Big Black River Bridge, but there is no doubt from his narrative that he was a seasoned solder long before arriving at Vicksburg.
Victor Hicken’s Illinois in the Civil War (1966, second edition) is widely recognized as the source book on that state’s participation in the war. His extensive list of references and resources overlooks Army Life. In bringing deserved attention to Marshall’s story, editor Robert G. Schultz has added a useful introductory essay and extensive endnotes. Schultz also provides relevant appendices, including two of eight issues of a newspaper published by the 33rd Illinois while at Ironton in winter 1861–1862. Schultz speculates that Marshall was a contributor to this effort. One of the book’s few shortcomings is that the remaining six issues were not included.
In making Albert Marshall’s lively narrative readily available, Robert G. Schultz has provided a great benefit to students of the western theater of the Civil War.