The Civil War was perhaps the single most tragic event in American history, a war that not only divided the country but also severed relationships within families. It truly was a War Between Brothers, as some have deemed the conflict. In other cases, the war forged and strengthened the bonds between families. Such was the case with the Christie family of Minnesota.
Brothers Thomas and William Christie served in the 1st Minnesota Light Artillery, and a third brother, Alexander (nicknamed “Sandy”) joined the army late in the war. The family members were prolific letter writers, and their epistles are now in the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society. Author Hampton Smith has transcribed many of these letters, annotated them, and placed them in context within the large fabric of the Civil War. Brother of Mine: Civil War Letters of Thomas & William Christie is a book that should fill a place on your book shelves if you enjoy the exploits of the common soldier.
These letters bring to life the ordeals of the ordinary Civil War soldier, so far from home and facing a spectrum of emotions from loneliness and homesickness to the stark terror and raw, adrenaline-pumping excitement of the battlefield. The Christie brothers served in most of the major campaigns of the Western Theater and their letters home provide a glimpse into the daily lives of the Union soldiers under U.S. Grant and William T. Sherman.
As the prospects of victory over the Confederacy improved, William Christie wrote his father that the soldiers were clamoring to take on a new foe — Ferdinand Maximillian, the French-backed puppet dictator of Mexico. Christie penned, “We are thinking a good deal now about the French in Mexico. Now that the Mississippi is open, and Lee has been so thoroughly whipped, it will not be long until this snake gets his quietus. We soldiers think it will then be our duty to attend to the Man of December. If we do not prevent France from subjugating Mexico, who will?” Of course, the Union Army did not march into Mexico, but Christie’s remarks reflect the growing sense of optimism and military prowess that by early 1865 filled the ranks. It was a far cry from the beginning of the war when “we will have the worst of it,” as Christie contemplates an upcoming campaign.
Editor Hampton Smith allows the letters to speak for themselves, but adds useful detail and clarification in his footnotes and introductory material. Too often editors want to insert themselves into the narratives; Smith to his credit takes a back seat to his material and to the Christie brothers’ own voices, which are powerful and evocative in their own right.
Brother of Mine transcends the ordinary collections of Civil War letters and diaries. The brothers are lucid, interesting, and descriptive in their seemingly endless series of letters to various family members. The collection of their writings is a tribute to the travails of the soldiers of the Union Army and to those from Minnesota in particular. Because of the flow and organization, it is easy to read small sections at a time and then put the book side until a later time, and not miss anything.
Hampton Smith is to be commended for bringing the story of Thomas and William Christie to light for a national audience.
Brother of Mine: Civil War Letters of Thomas & William Christie
Edited by Hampton Smith
St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2010
$19.95 MSRP; 330 pages, indexed, annotated, soft cover, 1 map, no illustrations