In Print : An Island Civil War soldier's diaries
"Your affectionate son, Charlie Mac: Civil War Diaries & Letters by a Soldier from Martha's Vineyard," Martha's Vineyard Museum, 2008, 292 pages. $16.95.
Charles Macreading Vincent, "Charlie Mac," was one of eight young Edgartown men who fought in the Civil War. Only 19 when he enlisted in 1862, Charlie Mac was confident that the war would soon be over, and he maintained an almost religious faith in the patriotic ideals that led him to enlist. In this he was no different from most young soldiers; however what makes Charlie Mac unique is that he kept a record of his experiences. In addition to keeping an almost-daily diary, Charlie wrote many long letters to his family and friends back home.
These documents have been collected in a single volume, "Your affectionate son, Charlie Mac: Civil War Diaries & Letters by a Soldier from Martha's Vineyard," due to be launched at the Martha's Vineyard Museum Thursday, July 24. Researched and assembled by Marian Halperin, the book documents and records the Civil War from a single soldier's perspective.
"Your affectionate son, Charlie Mac," is remarkable in that the record it keeps of the war is so fine-grained and detailed. It tells the story of a single man, making no effort to generalize about the army at large or the conflict itself.
The war's progress as a whole, and its lofty ideals, are mentioned only as Charlie Mac chooses to mention them, and it brings home the reality of war. Much of the book sounds like a letter home from camp, complete with descriptions of weather and requests for packages of food and clothing. Thus, the occasional mentions of battle are even more striking when contrasted to the mundane daily details of army life.
It is much easier to emotionally distance oneself from a war if the soldiers are reduced to numbers, and Charlie Mac seems to realize that in the course of keeping the diary, cutting himself off emotionally from his fellow soldiers. Perhaps a certain amount of distance is necessary for survival.
The first death he witnesses - one that, like the majority of Civil War casualties, was caused by disease and not battle -affects him deeply.
He writes: "Poor fellow, he had gone, and in this event we are forcibly reminded of the uncertainty of life. A few brief fleeting years are all that is allotted to man...."
But 15 months later (February 1864), his report sounds almost clinical: "The Rebs have whipped us handsomely. The 40th lost about 30 in killed and wounded...Most of the wounded have slight, flesh wounds, and will soon be on duty again."
Because the book was written day-to-day, there is little overarching plot such as those usually found in history books. Thus the reader is treated to a series of unedited snapshots from Charlie Mac: his empty belly, his homesickness and cold; his political ideals; his hatred for "Rebs" and slavery. These are his friends, his war and his time.
One can easily imagine a family at home, anxiously poring over the letters as they trace his progress on a map.
It is more difficult to imagine such detailed, proficient prose being penned by the light of a flickering lamp in a damp canvas tent. But clearly, Charlie Mac had a literary talent. Before the war, he worked as a printer for the Vineyard Gazette, and after returning from the conflict, he became editor and proprietor of the Island paper, before selling it and eventually taking a job at the Boston Globe.
The Globe praised his writing: "He was one of the most capable of journalists. The 'Table Gossip' under his charge gave evidence of his sense of wit and humor, while as a general writer he was uncommonly able..."
Indeed. Though he tends toward dry wit and inside jokes, it is clear that Charlie Mac was an excellent writer with a finely tuned sense of humor. He is also almost relentlessly cheerful, occasionally veering into dogged perseverance but almost never into despair.
The book was researched and prepared for by Marian Halperin of the Martha's Vineyard Museum. She transcribed his journals and letters, stringing them together chronologically. She also contributed useful footnotes and explanations that help make the story more accessible to people unfamiliar with the Civil War era. Recently retired, Ms. Halperin still volunteers at the Martha's Vineyard Museum.
She explains, "The [Museum] has a very rich collection - both the diaries we just purchased and all the letters that we had. While I was doing the project I found a lot of stuff that either I hadn't thought about, or just hadn't put together in that way. This is a single primary source piece. It really belongs to the Vineyard."
"Your affectionate son, Charlie Mac" will be launched this evening, July 24, at 5 pm at the Martha's Vineyard Museum on School Street in Edgartown.
Maia Smith is a freelance writer who spend summers on the Island.