"A Grand Terrible Drama": From Gettysburg to Petersburg, The Civil War Letters of Charles Wellington Reed

The book presents an extraordinary case of selfless sacrifice and the gratitude that the soldiers pay to their comrades when faced with acute adversities on the battlefield. The book is comprehensive guide for students of Civil War. Charles Reed and John Bigelow were two such soldiers and comrades who paths crossed each other as destiny or the war would have it. As guns, shrapnel and canisters were booming all over the place and men were dying their horrific deaths, Charles Reed who was also a topographer, bugler and an entrepreneur look it on himself to get the captain John Bigelow out of harm’s way and to safety.

This is one act of gratitude that the captain never forgot and ensured that the bugler got his due even though the honour was quite late. He wrote to the Adjutant General of USA, giving the details of the heroic act of Charles Reed and pressed upon him to give the ‘Medal of Honour’ to him. Accordingly the late bugler “Charles Reed” finally received the recognition due to him on Aug 16th 1895 that was almost 32 years after the civil war had taken place. He was awarded the medal for his incomparable gallantry at Gettysburg.

Reeds letters and diary never suggest that Massachusetts Yankee could be capable of displaying such a heroic act. In fact he had written in his diary, that Captain Bigelow acted like a king and even called him his “High-ness” and the tent of the captain was referred as the “palace”. But as soon as the war began, within a short span of 4 months, Reed had changed his mindset about the captain and became devoted to him as very few soldiers are devoted to their seniors and captains. The kind of respect that Reed had for his superior was quite uncommon.

Students of Civil War will be able to quickly realise who Charles Wellington Reed was, because of his sketches and the Gettysburg Lithograph of the 9th Massachusetts Battery that have been reproduced over the years in numerous publications that have appeared depicting the Civil War. This is the first time; his sketches, paintings, diaries and letters have been taken together to portray the character of the extraordinary soldier, if there ever was.

Eric Cambell has superbly managed to add the annotations and edit the 180 surviving letters that Reed wrote primarily to his mother and sisters, Emma and Helen. It shows the depth of character of a young man stuck in his quarters wanting a better life - somebody who wanted a better standing in his life and comforts for himself and his family. Here was a person, who foresaw that he could make money out of the sale of the lithographs and yet someone who understood his duties and responsibilities well and executed them under acute problems.

Since Eric Campbell has added his own professional skills and proofed the letters and done away with the material that is redundant to the cause, the material has become simpler to comprehend by the students of Civil War and by people in general. Since each letter has been annotated by the specific places and events as Reed has intended them to be, the reader can get a better understanding and view of what went on in this splendid soldier’s mind as well.

The letters have been organized in the chronological fashion that depicts the war field at Gettysburg. Along with the letters, the sketches are also incorporated, almost all 235 of them. They are extremely real and were in fact admired by Reed’s comrades in arms for their almost real life depiction. One of the most poignant of all sketches is where Lt. Erickson at Gettysburg was fatally wounded and kept giving orders even when he was vomiting blood.

As Reed never mentioned his own doings or skills on the battlefield or any of his heroic deeds, the students through the newspaper articles and other published material that has appeared over the years can only assess his valuable contribution.

Eric Campbell and the Fordham University Press have truly produced a great book that has finally done justice to the heroic acts and bravery displayed by Charles Wellington Reed.