Monday, August 3, 2020

“A Private in Gray” by Thomas Benton Reed

Thomas Benton Reed was a 24-year-old farmer living in “Halfway,” an area halfway between the towns of Natchitoches and Monroe in Louisiana. He had married in 1859, and he and his wife had a young son. His was not a slaveowning family. In 1862, he enlisted in the Louisiana company his two older brothers had joined the year before. And then he was sent with other enlistees to the Army of Northern Virginia.

Reed told his tale of the Civil War in A Private in Gray: Life in the Army of Northern Virginia from 1862 to 1865, first published in 1905. These types of memoirs by officers and soldiers alike were quite popular at the time; veterans and other participants were aging and wanting to preserve their memories and records. In reading Reed’s account, it soon becomes clear that he kept a journal; after a few introductory chapters, the account follows a straight chronology.

Accounts of battles are expected, and Reed includes them. But he also describes daily life in the Confederate army, and like similar memoirs from almost all wars, a great deal of discussion is devoted to boredom, finding enough food to eat, the weather (and especially the rain), and even the pranks soldiers played on each other.

Thomas Benton Reed
And disease. Before he gets involved in any battle, Reed comes down with the measles and spends several days recovering in the camp hospital. He’s also subject to various infections, including one on his head that he has to browbeat the doctor to lance. Later, after a minor wound in his leg during a battle, he almost comes to blows with the doctor over what Reed saw as an unnecessary amputation. He keeps his leg and recovers. 

As a soldier, Reed goes where his superiors tell him to go.  He’s not prone to name the battles he’s involved; you need to follow the account closely to identify them. For example, you don’t realize that his unit is part of the invasion of Pennsylvania that culminates in the Battle of Gettysburg, until Reed mentions the “Dutch woman” he meets and ask for food from. He was involved in the battle but didn’t participate in some of its more famous scenes. It’s one reason he lived to tell the tale. 

The most poignant parts of the book are when he describes the deaths of his two older brothers. For one, he risks his own life to find his body and bury him, and then he faces the onerous chore of having to write and tell his parents. The very last part of the book describes his return home, his life after the war, the deaths of his first two wives, and his move to Arkansas.

In turn, A Private in Gray is somber, comical, thoughtful, and occasionally profound; Thomas Benton Reed comes to understand that he’s a poor man fighting a rich man’s war. But he accepts his place and his lot, and he succeeds in making sure he survives.

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