Your Brother in Arms by Robert C. PlumbGeorge P. McClelland, a member of the 155th Pennsylvania Infantry, witnessed some of the Civil War's most pivotal battles. Never before published, McClelland's letters to his family offer fresh insights into camp life, battlefield conditions, perceptions of key leaders, and the mindset of a young man who faced the prospect of death nearly every day of his service. Plumb expounds on McClelland's words by placing the events in context and illuminating the collective forces at play in each account, adding a historical outlook to the raw voice of a young soldier.
Q: How did you obtain the letters that are in the book? Are they family letters?
The McClelland letters came to me from a relative of my wife. Her uncle purchased the 42 letters and photographs of McClelland from a Civil War ephemera dealer during the Civil War Centennial in the late 1960’s. When the uncle passed away in the early 1990’s, his widow gave the letters and photos to me. So the letters are, in a sense, “family letters,” but McClelland is not a relative. Nothing had been done with the letters until I began transcribing them in 2005. And that’s when this soldier’s fascinating story began to unfold.
Q: A lot has been written about the Civil War, including compilations of letters. What new information does your book offer to readers?
It’s certainly true that more books have been written about the Civil War than any other subject in the American experience, including some excellent books based on diaries and letters. Your Brother in Arms, however, is a singular contribution to the body of non-fiction work covering the Civil War. First, the letters cover a broad timeframe – the Army of the
Potomac from summer 1862 to spring 1865, a critical period in the war. And McClelland’s letters are exquisitely written and hold up well for the 21st century reader. Finally, I have written contextual narrative to accompany the letters so that the general reader has some historical guideposts to better understand the environment in which McClelland was operating as he was writing his letters. The eminent Civil War historian Drew Gilpin Faust has said: “War cannot be understood or communicated as a grand panorama. It is real only in the context of individual lives and deaths.” The new information for readers is the fresh perspective that the individual life of George McClelland brings to our understanding of a war that was fought 150 years ago.
Q: What went into your work in writing the narrative that surrounds McClelland’s letters?
Military records from the Civil War are very well preserved and relatively easy to access. I spent a lot of time pouring over McClelland’s service, medical and pension records at the National Archives in
. And I was able to pull a tremendous amount of information from these very complete records. I spent time in Washington, DC Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and exploring McClelland’s pre- and post-war life. During the course of my research, I walked the battlefields where McClelland and his unit fought. All of these battlefields have been saved from development so that I was able to walk in McClelland’s footsteps without having to detour around a big box store or a housing development. I was also fortunate to spend time with some of our country’s most knowledgeable Civil War historians and battlefield guides to get information first-hand. Davenport, Iowa
Q: Did your own military experience inform your writing about McClelland?
From a macro sense, I think there are shared experiences for anyone who has served in a theatre of combat regardless of whether it’s 1863 at Gettysburg, 1968 in the Mekong Delta, or 2011 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The appreciation of correspondence from loved ones at home; a deep sense of responsibility for one’s comrades in arms; and an acute awareness of one’s own mortality -- all these transcend time and place. Today soldiers write home using e-mail, enjoy vastly better diets and have the benefit of some very sophisticated medical treatment – but the fundamental experiences of a military person in a combat zone are universal and timeless. These overarching aspects of combat did help my understanding of what McClelland was going through as I researched and wrote the narrative material in the book.
Q: What would you like readers to take away from this book?
I think my answer – or rather answers – depend on the reader. I hope the general adult reader better understands what the men who fought at well-known battles, such as
Gettysburg and Chancellorsville, were facing and thinking. Short of being there or watching a film of battle -- both of which are impossible when we study the Civil War today – the articulate and descriptive letters from soldiers are the next best thing. I hope the young reader comes away with an understanding and appreciation of a teenager who went off to serve in one of ’s bloodiest wars and conducted himself with honor and bravery under the most difficult of circumstances. For Civil War buffs I hope that they get a fresh perspective on the conduct of the war that either confirms their thinking or challenges what they have learned to date and gives them an opportunity to reflect again on this event in American history that is so important to them. America