Morning to Midnight in the Saddle


A soldier’s annotated letters chronicle life and death in the Civil War’s western theater.

In 1862, Otho McManus was a 24-year-old schoolteacher when he joined the 123rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Orphaned at 16, he was the oldest of five children scattered to foster homes. He married Sallie Rupp, the pastor’s daughter in a small congregation of families that included his foster parents. They all became his extended family. He fought alongside two brothers, a brother-in-law and four cousins, all of whom enlisted the same day. Everyone survived but Otho, killed seven days before Lee’s surrender. This collection of more than 100 previously unpublished letters is notable for its volume and clarity and for the writer’s participation in an innovative wartime strategy. Col. John T. Wilder’s “Lightning Brigade,” which Otho joined in May 1863, used mounted infantry—soldiers riding horses to outmarch opposing infantry but fighting on foot, using newly invented repeating rifles to outshoot their opponents. Otho’s erudition, even temper, and devotion to his wife, 6-year-old daughter and the Union cause shine throughout. His attention to detail yields many delightful surprises and in-depth information about the engagements in which he fought. The editors, all Otho’s descendants, provide crucial context and narrative flow between the letters, leavening the inherent challenges of storytelling through personal correspondence—potentially tedious repetition and oblique references that could leave readers in the dark. Their support is especially needed given the one-sided nature of the letters; no responses to Otho survived. Their text, from broader scene-setting to explaining minute details, is clear and well-paced, and they are in obvious command of the material. They cite 50 books and 13 articles in more than 350 endnotes that further illuminate the story and should not be ignored. Some readers might desire even more background and analysis from these knowledgeable editors, but they keep Otho’s voice squarely in the foreground—an effective choice. Readers grow fond of Otho and his family through letters spanning 30 months. Although the outcome is known in advance, his death, reported to his wife by his brother-in-law/comrade in arms, evokes a powerful, novelistic climax.

A genuine treat for Civil War buffs and a valuable source for scholars.

Pub Date: July 2, 2014

ISBN: 978-1469143194

Page Count: 322

Publisher: Xlibris

Review Posted Online: Aug. 7, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2014

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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