University of Georgia Press, 2009
Editor Wendy Hamand Venet is a professor of history at Georgia State University who gave a lecture at a BGES symposium in Massachusetts about six years ago. She subsequently decided to join the BGES and has been an active member since them. In that time she has advanced in her profession having been promoted to full professor several years ago. She is not a military historian and her social interest provides a great prism for studying the war. Previous books such as Neither Ballots nor Bullets: Women Abolitionists and the Civil War and A Strong Minded Woman—The Life of Mary Livermore mark her as a person whose research should be reckoned with.
The challenge to historians in helping reveal an era is in recreating the experiences of the period to be studied. It is a task that is rarely done well—too many people, too many experiences and not enough documentation and that is often fragmentary. Thus we make much of an intact, comprehensive narrative because it rings of authenticity. The principal in this diary wrote religiously for 67 years. While Venet has limited herself to October 1860-August 1865, we get a sense of the man and his environment. There is a reassuring integrity to his standard entries. We get a sense of the tempo of life in his world.
Sam Richards is a draft dodger "I have been considerably exercised this week in getting an exemption certificate from the enrolling officer" -— a business man whose middle age initially exempts him from military service but whose fortunes change with the Confederacy’s as the war drags on. A book seller by choice he is flexible in his activities especially if it will sustain his exemption from service in the army “I was overhauled in the printing office a few days ago…Lieutenant Morgan a young whippersnapper questioned the legality of Mr. Toon’s claims, but, said if I could get a certificate of the editor of the paper published I could then get an exemption … Morgan saying I had left a large bookstore suddenly when I found the(conscripting) officer after me and had accepted a nominal position at the printing office just to escape conscription . Like many civilians he enlists in the local militia company hoping that level of commitment will take him out of the public eye and give him an opportunity to avoid conscription.
Richards is not an overtly successful merchant and the coming of the war has not simplified his challenges. Partnering with his brother he comes to Atlanta and sets up his business—we follow his cash flow and learn his views about the various protestant ministers and the themes of their sermons week after week. We also see the progress of the war through his eyes—if you remember Melanie and Scarlett in the streets of Atlanta following the battle of Gettysburg you get a real sense of information flow in these population centers.
I found myself enjoying the earthy reality of his observations to wit: Friday October 17, 1862, We have discontinued Dora’s medicine as I don’t think that she is or has been troubled by Worms … I will annex the receipt, a handful of garlic cut fine and steeped in a pint of whiskey with a teaspoon of gunpowder, dilute one half and pour a tablespoonful upon a teaspoon full of sugar and give before breakfast every morning. I don’t vouch for its efficacy myself.
Because it is a diary the daily entries move from robust to mundane "I am a cripple today by reason of a painful soft corn between my toes…We had one of our turkies today for dinner which is the second one we have had I think since we were married, so that the turkey race have not got much of a grudge against us ". However, any student of the war can gauge the mood of the populace by the items he chooses to highlight. As the war moves closer to home, Richards elects not to refugee but is evicted from Atlanta and sent North with his family—first to Louisville and then eventually to New York City.
The book is manageable at just 311 pages inclusive of an 11 page index. This is a book that would have profited from photographs—we have seen so many Atlanta photographs that it would have been nice to include some that may have shown the area where Richards and his wife lived. Venet’s lack of military orientation is noticeable but not important. In her role as editor she has opted for a minimal level of commentary. By letting Richards speak for himself she has left it to the reader to interpret as they see fit. That refreshing method keeps the reader in Richards’ life. Far too often editors feel the need to comment on or footnote every single entry. If the diarist is of questionable veracity that is helpful—on the other hand if the story flows well and the editor has selected the passages carefully then extra commentary is intrusive and unwelcome. The editor’s role is to keep the reader focused and in the moment—Venet does that well.
This is not Mary Chesnut’s Diary from Dixie or John Jones’ A Rebel War Clerk’s Diary. It is however an honest representation of life in Atlanta and the environment around there during the war. The reader will be better informed and empathetic for the effort. I may find myself watching Gone with the Wind again to see if Richards’ is there. I recommend this book.
Disclosure: Wendy Hamand Venet is a dues paying member of the BGES.