Monday, January 3, 2011

Using John Booker's Civil War Letters In the Classroom

John and James were born to John Booker (1797-1859) and Nancy Blair Reynolds Booker (1796-1859) on October 10, 1840, and both enlisted in the Confederate Army on May 24, 1861, at Whitmell, Virginia, in Company D 38th Virginia Regiment, Infantry (also known as "the Whitmell Guards"). They began writing letters to their cousin soon after enlisting, and they continued until they were both severely wounded in the Battle of Drewry's Bluff near Petersburg, Virginia, on May 16, 1864. John died of his wounds in August 1864, but James recovered, married Martha Ann Fulton ["Pat"] (?-1923) of Pittsylvania County, on October 31, 1867, and lived until 1923. (Click here for the source of this summary)




The John Booker letters are great examples of the realities of participation in wartime. They demonstrated that the initial enthusiasm and adventure-seeking that motivated young men to volunteer and enlist faded away when the realities of war became evident. Booker, a Confederate soldier, probably enlisted with his brother and friends to preserve their way of life and defend their homes and families. Over time, he realized that war is not always about these heroic intentions. It may start out that way, but when it comes down to doing the work of war, it is unpleasant, unfair, and isolating.


Booker's participation was punctuated with frustration and disillusionment. He was frustrated with his officers and his family and friends at home as well. His officers seemed unaware of the importance of fairness among their men.


Christmas is close by and I see no chance for me or James to get home. I would like the best in the world for one of us to get home by Christmas if we could ans I think one of us was to get a furlough and if the officers would do right we would get one. But if they can get home whenever they please, they don't care for us.

Furloughs were obviously highly valued, and granting them in a fair way was essential to maintaining the loyalty and motivation of the men. Additionally, Booker saw right through the governor's strategy to give the men an impossible choice when trying to get them to reenlist in the Confederate Army.


The Governor came out the other day and made us a speech an tried to the get the men to re-enlist for the war, and when he had quit speaking the Colonel had us all in line and then the Colors carried to the front and then told all the men he wanted all who were determined to be freemen to step out on the line with the Colors and all who were willing to be slaves for their enemies to stand fast. ...I didn't wish to be in either line. ...I believe that as long as we will stay here and express a willingness to stay here our leading men will keep the war up.
Booker argues that he wants peace and seems to believe that the officers and political leaders do not, but they need young men like him to fight their war for them. Our students might look at this and try to connect it to the strategies that politicians use today to convince their constituents that their legislative agenda/campaign platform/party tagline is the best.

Most interesting, and sad, to me was the fact that Booker seemed truly upset that the letters from family and friends did not arrive often enough.


I am sure there is nothing that affords me more pleasure than to receive a letter from any of my friends or relations at home. But it's seldom I get a letter. I had been expecting a letter from you two or three weeks before I received it.

I take this opportunity of responding to your most kind and interesting letter of the 10th of last month which was so long coming to hand I had begun to think that you had given out writing to me anymore or had written and I had failed to get your letter, though I suppose your letter were on the road longer than it ought have been.

This point would not be lost on our students given that American men and women are serving in Afghanistan and all over the world. There are many opportunities for them to send their thoughts, well-wishes, and even a few tokens of gratitude to these people who make great sacrifices.

Students might draw from these primary source documents that participation for an individual can change over time. Booker is a hero, but is story is not an ideal one. It would be a great way to show students how true heroics are achieved.

Please Note: This reflection was completed as part of the author's participation in the History Connected program. Please see the History Connected Wiki or the History Connected Official Website for information on the federal grant that provided the opportunity.

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