A Diary of Battle: the Personal Journals of Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, 1861-1865

edited by Allan Nevins, New York, Da Capo, 1998

The author of these diaries, Charles Wainwright, was a senior artillery officer in the Army of the Potomac. He served with (and observed) all of its commanders and leading personalities, he fought in almost all of its famous battles, and he worked to reform the artillery's organization. An educated New York gentleman farmer, he writes so beautifully and clearly about events as to require almost no footnotes. His mood is unnaturally stable, his narrative voice steady, his opinions firm, and as the events of days unfold they form a comfortable rhythm which is only interrupted by the editor and his various notes and comments. The events and personalities are monumental and the insights consistently worthwhile.

The editor is Allan Nevins, who procured this diary from Wainwright's family, thus reserving to himself publishing honors. Nevins was active in the 1950s and 1960s and belongs to that Bruce Catton "beautiful writing" school. His insertions in Wainwright's diary are loose, florid and overdone, clashing strongly with Wainwright's tight, low-key narrative. Nevins interrupts often. As to the value of these interruptions: none. They sometimes give overviews of some general action Wainwright might be engaged in (sloppily digesting a complex battle into three or four paragraphs), other times they correct Wainwright's opinions.

Opinion-correction is the worst trial a reader faces. At one point, the author gripes to his diary about commutation of death sentences by Lincoln. Lest you think ill of Lincoln for even an instant, Nevins unexpectedly appears: "Wainwright's readiness to have cowards and deserters shot, and his hostility to press correspondents, shows that he had an imperfect grasp of the conditions under which American democracy had to wage war." Puerile? Hectoring? There's more, plenty more. The effect is like a bus ride with commuters who are reading a newspaper over your shoulder and loudly reacting to the stories they see. Wainwright's admiration for and constant references to McClellan become torture for McClellean friends and foes alike, as slews of corrective interruptions are unleashed.

Nevins also uses his editorial break-ins to recap material from Wainwright's diary. Slovenly reader that I am, I was half-way through the book before I realized that the editor was not recapping material that I was about to read but valuable material that he had deleted and that I would never see! There was a hint of this early in the book when, after some buildup, Wainwright begins to give the detailed results of an artillery inspection and Nevins interrupts to announce he cut it out.

Wanted: A publisher willing to provide more space for McClellan bashing and lessons in American democracy. Contact Allan Nevins.

This book is a marvelous officer's-eye-view of the history of the AoP. Of the leading personalities in this diary, Wainwright spends the most time with Hooker (never drunk, he says), Marsena Patrick (a good gossip), artillery chief Hunt, and Corps Commander Warren. He has interesting vignettes featuring Lincoln (who appears inconsiderate of the troops, generally), Grant (whom he is somewhat down on), Kearny, Meade, Wadsworth, and Burnside (whose HQ he found congenial and well stocked with beer and hard cider in 1864). Kearny and Hooker he likes but seems to regard as blowhards. McClellan he knew only slightly, but admired greatly and Mac's shadow looms over the narrative through1864.

Nevins' harm is contained in passages of different-sized text, which stand out from Wainwright's narrative. Use the distinction to your best advantage. You won't be sorry.


Amazon link

(c) 1998 The McClellan Society