Testament is fast-paced and informative account of the Western campaigns of the Civil War based on the observations (through letters) of a common soldier—Webb Baker a great grandfather of the author who enlisted in Illinois and fought on the Union side of the Civil War for three years. Through his 70-some surviving letters home we get a glimpse of the day-to-day hardships and tragedies of a soldier’s life.
The author provides a framework of events and some detail of the battles surrounding these fairly short letters, but little description of the actual battles are found in Webb Baker’s letters. These letters were primarily written to his mother, who understandably had much anxiety for him. They therefore tended to be more upbeat and encouraging to allay her fears as much as possible.
Benson Bobrick, the author, gives a concise and well-written description of events and personalities without overbearing the reader with too much detail. It is a great introduction for non-scholars of the Civil War. Though I’m not a scholar of the Civil War by any means, I think those who are well-versed in it would get a lot out of this account by observing the communications of this quite intelligent farm boy from Illinois.
Mr. Bobrick gave me a sense of the many tragedies that occurred throughout the war as a result of rash thinking, unreliable intelligence, defects of personality, and simple bad luck. Of course hind-sight is always 20/20, but it is amazing some of the blunders committed that resulted in so much needless loss of life and property. Any war is a tragedy, but this one sure could have been executed more effectively, especially by the North. It is amazing the South held out as long as they did considering their inferior resources.
Though not at all brought up in the book, I saw many parallels in the perception of the war in the North to that of the United States and the current war in Iraq. Loyalties were divided and confused in the North and served to undermine the war effort. Lincoln is to be greatly respected for his steadfast prosecution of the war and enlightened leadership dealing with unmotivated generals and a weary public.
The war served a great purpose in refining and developing the perceptions and thinking of individuals and the nation as a whole on the ethical issues of slavery and state’s rights. No doubt, much was lost because of the war in addition to the loss of life and shattered lives, but overall, the nation became stronger once the slavery issue was finally resolved (though not perfectly) on the ethical side of truth and right. Although Webb Baker and the public at large did not fully appreciate it at the time, the war forced these issues to surface and to be dealt with.