Little to Eat and Thin Mud to Drink: Letters, Diaries, and Memoirs of the Red River Campaign

Little to Eat and Thin Mud to Drink: Letters, Diaries, and Memoirs of the Red River Campaign

Little to Eat and Thin Mud to Drink does more than just document the history of the Trans-Mississippi conflict of the Civil War. It goes much deeper, offering a profound, extended look into the innermost thoughts of the soldiers and civilians who experienced the events that took place in Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas. Gleaning from a rich body of rare journals, diaries, and letters, this groundbreaking book demonstrates the significant impact that military operations in this region had on the local population in years between 1863 and 1865.

Readers will be introduced to the many different individuals who were touched by the campaign, both Confederate and Union. Ably edited by Joiner, a leading expert on the Trans-Mississippi conflict, and others, some of these manuscripts are witty, others somber, some written by Harvard- and Yale-educated aristocrats, others by barely literate farmers. All profoundly reflect their feelings regarding the extraordinary circumstances and events they witnessed.

In Little to Eat and Thin Mud to Drink, readers will have access to the diary of James A. Jarratt, a Confederate sergeant whose cogent narratives dispute commonly held views of the Battle of Mansfield. Representing a much different point of view is the diary of Private Julius Knapp, whose lengthy diary sheds light on the life of a Northern soldier fighting in the ill-fated Union march through Louisiana in 1864. A rare glimpse into the diary of a Southern woman is offered through the fascinating and melancholy musings of plantation belle Sidney Harding. Readers will also encounter the private letters of a French prince turned Confederate officer; of Elizabeth Jane Samford Fullilove, the angst-ridden wife of a Confederate soldier; and many others.

These first-person narratives vividly bring to life the individuals who lived through this important, but often neglected, period in Civil War history. Little to Eat and Thin Mud to Drink will engross anyone interested in exploring the human side of the Civil War.

Gary D. Joiner

University of Tennessee Press 2007 ISBN: 1572335718

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Review by Jeff Patrick  (Nov 2007)

Thanks to two recent works by Gary Joiner (Through the Howling Wilderness and One Damn Blunder from Beginning to End), Civil War scholars have gained a new appreciation of the Trans-Mississippi’s largest campaign.

Dr. Joiner continues to expand our knowledge of the 1864 Union offensive with his latest work, Little to Eat and Thin Mud to Drink, an excellent collection of first-person narratives and, as historian Peter Carmichael believes, the first volume in a “new genre of campaign studies.”

Joiner and his fellow editors have assembled an impressive array of voices to tell the story of the ill-fated federal adventure from many different perspectives.  Southern civilians, Confederate and Union enlisted men, company and regimental commanders, staff members, generals and even naval officers come to life through these well-chosen diaries, letters and memoirs.

Poignant, wonderfully detailed stories make this book a delight to read.  James A. Jarratt of the Consolidated Crescent Regiment, for instance, wrote vividly of his combat experiences, recalling how he saved an unresisting Yankee from death at the hands of a Texan, then how the same “brave little Texan” met his end (likely by friendly fire). Jarratt also freely admitted a lack of confidence in his commanding officer: “There was a plenty of the privates more capable of commanding a regiment than he was,” he believed.

Confederate B.E. Ballard wrote his sister in May 1864, reporting the death of her husband at the battle of Yellow Bayou. With his eyes “full of tears,” he asked her to take the loss as easy as possible, for “Youth and vigor soon will flee, blooming beauty loose its charms, all that’s mortal soon will be Enclosed in deaths cold arms. But the Christian shall enjoy health and beauty in a home for beyond this worlds allure.”

Texan F.B. Harris described how a piece of solid shot narrowly missed him, and how he thought he was mortally wounded, “or seriously frightened, or struck with and [sic] earth quake, or Vesuvius had opened, or hell had broke loose.”

When her husband joined the Confederate Army, Louisianian Elizabeth Samford managed the family farm. When the armies collided close by, she heard the cannonading, wondered about the fate of her husband, and anxiously asked for news from each courier that galloped down her road. “I will never forget the day & its agony & suspense,” she wrote many years later.

On the Federal side, a soldier known only as “Thomas” wrote a letter on the battlefield, using his cap for a desk. He described the fighting at Pleasant Hill, “a terrible spot,” with the Union forces outnumbered and low on ammunition and bodies scattered around them, some literally blown to bits so they were unable to tell friend from foe.

“I don’t know why they call this place Pleasant Hill,” he wrote. “Seems darned unpleasant to me right now.” Despite the grim situation, he confidently ended his letter with the words, “We will whip them. You can bet on that.”

Thomas Hayden, a member of the 38th Massachusetts and a Red River survivor, perhaps summed up the pessimistic Federal point of view best of all: “Soldiering out here is no joke.”

In addition to these accounts, extensive notes help the reader understand the context of each item and add important details and clarification. Orders of battle for operations in Louisiana and Arkansas, a list of Union vessels deployed in the campaign and an extensive timeline round out this fine addition to the “Voices of the Civil War” series.

Jeff Patrick is an interpretive specialist with the National Park Service at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield in Republic, Mo. He holds B.A. and M.A. degrees in American history from Purdue University.

Dr. Gary Joiner