A Family’s Civil War Letters

I have a friend who runs a small niche publishing house. he only works with history, and the books have to be unique, some new perspective on an event. I refer to the style as ‘Living History’, events as seen at the time through an observers eye. The Tented Field is a perfect example of the kind of material that my friend likes.

In the 1960’s Susan Downs Burleson’s grandfather James T. Downs III painstakingly transcribed some hand written letters written by members of his family during the Civil War. It is these letters that are featured in the book. There is minimal commentary, other than the occasional paragraph explaining a particular conflict or place.

There are countless books in print on the subject of the civil war, they all tend to discuss strategies and battle results. The Tented Field does not do that, rather it looks at the minutiae of everyday life for both the civilian and the soldier.

One aspect that I found particularly interesting was the rate of inflation that occurred during this period. Now the authors of the letters do not use the term inflation, but rather talk in terms of how much a spring chicken, or a pound of bacon costs.

The letters are mainly from James Tickell Downs Sr and his brother Robert, both privates in the Confederate Army to their parents John Lewis Downs and Sarah Tickell. There are also some letters from James and Robert’s sisters.

Although we have only one side of the correspondence it still makes for compelling reading. The exuberance of youth is infectious. These were young men who were following a cause they truly believed in, the letters make reference to the declining state of their living conditions, but at no time is there a single word of complaint. Even when wounded, they do not complain.

James Tickell Downs Sr suffered a second shooting, this time resulting in his leg being amputated and taken prisoner. Until his demise he called the dreaded Yankee prisoner of war camp Elmira home. In fact the final part of the book are some reflections by him on life in Elmira.

The Downs family owned a plantation in Mississippi, just north of the Louisiana border, although The Tented Field does not give an exact location it would seem likely that it was somewhere near Vicksburg or Natchez. I know some people that are serious students of the Confederate Army in this area, I do plan on contacting them to see what light they can shed on the Downs family.

I think Susan Downs Burleson has done a wonderful job on bring to print this glimpse of life for one family during the most turbulent times the US has ever known. Better still, the letters have not been edited, there are typo’s, there are references that we can only guess at. This is a true treasure trove for any Civil War student. But, even if you are not a history buff, you will still enjoy this very intimate look at a piece of American culture, one that is not taught in schools. A book like The Tented Field would make a wonderful adjunct to a Civil War school course. Not so much about the facts and figures, but about the social and economic climate of the day. With history it is easy to look at the big picture, sometimes though. more can be learned by the small picture.

In fact I plan on getting out my HistoryScope and following the Downs brothers war.

You can order your copy of The Tented Field from Amazon.

Simon Barrett

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