Non-Fiction

Article excerpt

Title: The Complete Civil War Journals and Selected Letters of Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Editor: Christopher Looby

Data: University of Chicago Press, 393 pages, $35

Review by Simon Barker-Benfield

It is somehow very odd to read in Higginson's diary entry about the Jacksonville of just two lifetimes ago:

"Headquarters, Jacksonville, March 13, 1863 -- This pretty place, which we have retaken & now hold for the Government was the chief city of Florida & once held about 3,000 inhabitants. . . . There are fine rows of brick houses, along the wharf . . . My men have behaved perfectly well, although many were owned here & do not love the people as you may suppose."

Higginson was a well-born but poor New England intellectual, literary man, onetime Unitarian minister and abolitionist. During the Civil War he was colonel of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, which saw service in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. His diary was the source material for his Army Life in A Black Regiment, which is still in print (Penguin Classics, $10.95.)

The army viewed the employment of black soldiers as an experiment and Higginson was determined that the experiment would be a success.

His journal is as much a social history of a time and place in U.S. history and a mirror of the attitudes of his day as it is a record of his efforts to build an effective military unit.

Higginson led a raid up the St. Marys River and skirmished around the outskirts of Jacksonville, which he fortified during the brief third Federal occupation of the the war. Jacksonville was left in flames when the army left. (And Higginson in his diary takes pains to point out that his troops were not responsible. …