Review of A Civil War Soldier’s Diary: Valentine C. Randolph, 39th Illinois Regiment.

This review of mine will appear in an upcoming issue of On Point, the quarterly publication of the Army Historical Foundation.

book coverA Civil War Soldier’s Diary: Valentine C. Randolph, 39th Illinois Regiment. Edited by David D. Roe. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2006. 290pp. Maps. ISBN-10: 0-87580-343-1. Cloth $35.00

This is one of the best-written accounts of the Civil War from a soldier for a diary or memoir. Valentine C. Randolph takes the reader on a journey from the small town of Lincoln, Illinois to the eastern theater of the war. Along the way, Randolph served in Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina with the 39th Illinois Infantry Regiment until his discharge in September 1864. The reader will find himself or herself feeling as if they are with Randolph both in camp and on the battlefield.

Randolph’s diary reads like most soldier diaries. Most entries involve commenting on the weather, battles, sickness (Randolph notes this quite often, as he ends up in the hospital for several months with apparent malaria), and daily happenings in the camps. However, Randolph’s diary has certain unique qualities that set it apart from other published sources and unpublished sources. Besides being a common soldier, Randolph is an educated soldier. The biographical section provided by Roe notes that Randolph attended the preparatory school at Illinois College (the alma mater of this reviewer), which gave him training in Classics. Randolph occasionally using Latin phrases in his entries evidences this.

Another interesting characteristic is Randolph’s religious devotion, which is interspersed throughout the diary. He typically mentions when it is the Sabbath and often mentions the church services and other religious events occurring while he is in the Army. The biography notes that he attended college after the war, earning his Bachelor of Divinity degree. He then became a Methodist preacher and eventually professor of Greek and Latin at a Methodist college in Illinois. This all supports Dr. Steven Woodworth’s assertion on the back cover of Randolph being “the most educated and articulate private soldier I’ve ever encountered by way of a diary or memoirs.”

Randolph’s entries are very much worth reading, as it gives a first-hand account of the journey of not only him, but also his regiment through much of the war. However, the commentary by Stephen Wise allows the reader to gain an understanding of the work well. This is a double-edged sword, as the reader is tempted to just read the commentary and skip the entries, which warrants reminding the reader that they are reading a diary from a soldier and not a regimental history.

This book adds to the overall scholarship available to historians and general readers on Civil War soldiers, which is a growing field in history. In addition to Randolph’s entries, the book possesses other good qualities. The book is well researched, containing many informative content footnotes as well as maps and an index, which aid readers in locating places Randolph notes, and, finding specific topics to use the diary for research. David Roe, the editor and Stephen Wise, the commentator, have done an excellent job of presenting Randolph’s diary to today’s readers. Randolph’s diary stands out as a wonderful source for readers to begin learning about the enlisted man. Military readers will connect with Randolph, as he notes things that many soldiers face in the field, like weather and battle. Overall, this book is necessary reading for Civil War enthusiasts.