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 This collection of more than 100 previously unpublished letters is notable for its volume and clarity and for the writer’s participation in an innovative wartime strategy.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.