A Palmetto Boy: Civil War-Era Diaries and Letters of James Adams Tillman

By Long, Joe | South Carolina Historical Magazine, April 2012 | Go to article overview
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A Palmetto Boy: Civil War-Era Diaries and Letters of James Adams Tillman

Long, Joe, South Carolina Historical Magazine

A Palmetto Boy: Civil War-Era Diaries and Letters of James Adams Tillman. Edited by Bobbie Swearingen Smith. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2010. Pp. xx, 210; $29.95, cloth.)

The wartime letters and journals of James Adams Tillman, skillfully edited and carefully augmented by Tillman descendant Bobbie Swearingen Smith, paint a vivid picture of life in the Confederate army, particularly the Twenty-Fourth South Carolina Volunteer Infantry and the Army of Tennessee. This book also adds to the chronicles of one of South Carolina's most important political families, the Tillmans of Edgefield. Most of all, it is the moving record of the final few years in a brief and tragic life.

James Tillman was only eighteen years old when South Carolina seceded from the Union. Although his father, George D. Tillman, had initially discouraged him from enlisting, young James attained the rank of captain by the end of the Civil War. He died at age twenty-four, a year after the firing ceased, from the effects of numerous combat wounds. His journal, kept from March 1, 1862, through June 2, 1866 (plus a few final entries penned by his brother), covers this traumatic, tumultuous period.

Smith's editing of the diaries and a selection of family correspondence has produced a compelling work. Introductory material and appendixes assist in making this volume a standout among published wartime journals. For example, the six-page genealogical summary of James Tillman's family provides a helpful dramatis personae for the reader as well as a brief overview of the social environment that produced the larger-than-life characters of the Tillman clan.

While the author of the diaries and letters presented in A Palmetto Boy was a dedicated Confederate soldier, he was no starry-eyed idealist; his writings reveal a pragmatic streak. As the fortunes of the Army of Tennessee rose and fell, Tillman maintained a steadfast admiration for the courage of his comrades and dedication to the cause, yet his assessments of the course of the war were always thoughtful and realistic.

The first entries in Tillman's journal record the dutiful son's educational endeavors. In the spring of 1862, however, he noted having "rode to the village" and "volunteered for the war" (p. 9). Even before reporting for duty, Tillman made several references to his poor health, which becomes a running theme throughout the book. Another constant among the journal entries are his routine daily descriptions of fluctuations in the weather and the army's morale.

While most diary entries are concise and many of the letters fairly prosaic, Tillman described some battles in considerable and even poetic detail. He wrote with obvious pride in his own regiment, but he also offered some trenchant criticism of the Army of Tennessee's tactics and strategy. Near Dallas, Georgia, in May 1864, he remarked on his regiment's reluctance to take cover from enemy fire: "Scarcely a man exhibited any hesitation about exposing himself to the warm and deadly fire of the enemy's Sharp Shooters and [a] few had to be ordered to seek shelter behind trees. However I never saw men act more fearlessly and at the same time more foolishly. All skirmishers are allowed and required to conceal and protect themselves, but on that evening all seemed to abhor the idea of dodging or sheltering themselves. It was owing to this principally that we suffered so much" (p. 90).

Between battles, Tillman's struggles were with sickness and privation. These were shared by his African American body servant, Pete, a companion in much misery.

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