September 5, 2010

A Texan in Search of a Fight

This small and slender volume represents the wartime letters and diary entries of Private John Camden West (1834-1927), who served in Company E of the Fourth Texas Infantry. It is considered one of the better primary source books for anyone with an interest in Hood’s Texas Brigade. According to an obituary and biography of West, he was reputed to have been one of the few who witnessed the death of "Stonewall" Jackson. West was born at Camden, SC in 1834 and married Miss Mary E. Stark there in 1858. After coming to Texas, he was appointed district attorney by Jefferson Davis, but gave up his post to enlist in Speight's Regiment of the Confederate Army in 1862. In the permanent Confederate Government he was again appointed attorney for Western Texas. Determined to see action in the Civil War, West again resigned his position and reenlisted with Company E, Fourth Texas Infantry, in April 1863; he fought at Gettysburg, Chickamauga, and Knoxville before being honorably discharged in February 1864. “Judge West” died in 1927 in the same home he was living in when he enlisted the last time. He was believed to be the last surviving member of Company E.

West’s wartime letters, most of which are addressed to “My precious wife,” form the bulk of the book. The diary entries cover the initial and final periods of West’s service; from April 9, 1863 to June 9, 1863 and March 8 to April 18, 1864. He was a very keen observer and as an educated man, he wrote well, often with a type of humor that is wonderful to read and so often endemic to Texans. According to Gary Gallagher, “West's book includes valuable information about the battles in which he took part, attitudes and concerns of soldiers in the ranks, and the nature of travel between the trans-Mississippi and the eastern Confederacy at the mid-point of the war.”

The first edition is quite pricey though not exactly rare as seen here. Initially published in 1901 by the Press of J. H. Hill in Waco, Texas, the first printing was considered a limited edition and is essentially a paperback original though with flexible orange cloth covers rather than paper wrappers. I'm still trying to learn how many copies were printed as in the initial run. Tom Broadfoot's Civil War Books: A Priced Checklist (5th Ed.) notes that there were two versions: one with an appendix and one without, the former being considered more valuable to collectors. Within a few short years, the book was already being viewed as a collector’s item. For those of more modest means, such as your humble correspondent, a 1969 facsimile reprint from the Texian Press (pictured) is certainly more affordable.