Soldiering: The Civil War Diary of Rice C. Bull

Jarring blasts of thunder commingled with the cries of wounded Union prisoners during an unrelenting midnight storm after the Battle of Chancellorsville. A handful of men found shelter in a dilapidated cabin and few more found refuge under makeshift tents. Most were stranded in the open, the rain pelting their faces, their cries of help going unanswered, their weakened bodies sinking in the muddy earth. As the temperature fell and a bitter northern wind swept across the field, New York soldier Rice C. Bull feared that everyone would perish that night. Everywhere he looked, men were “sprawled in the mud and filth with nothing between them and the ground but their soaked woolen blankets.” Next to Bull laid a suffering comrade, his chest heaving from a wound to the lungs, his breathing labored as he mumbled a prayer for death.

Fifty years later Rice Bull could not erase the horrible memory of that night. “I can yet see those wounded men,” he wrote, “as they lay on the ground half covered with the yellow mud and water.” His recollections of that night and of his entire army experience were raw, authentic and never romanticized. He recounted his military career in Soldiering: The Civil War Diary of Rice C. Bull. The title is terribly misleading. is not a diary, but a reminiscence, and like any postwar account it must be used with great care. To his credit, Bull did not invent a heroic narrative of the war filled with gallant men who were always selfless, always dutiful and never affected by human slaughter. His combat descriptions are clean, precise accounts, usually devoid of emotion as if he were writing an official report for a superior. Bull’s recollections of the Atlanta campaign, for instance, reflect the calm assuredness of a veteran who is accustomed to the dangers of war. He processes those engagements as if he were a calculating, methodical engineer. The brutal horrors that he so graphically remembered of Chancellorsville are essentially absent in the latter parts of the book. Bull unquestionably became a hardened veteran, and one wonders after reading how much trauma and turmoil he buried in the deep recesses of his mind.

Like most memoirs from Union soldiers, Bull’s extends a forgiving hand to his former enemies. Throughout the book he reminds the reader that the shared experience of combat united Confederate and Union soldiers. Examples of mutual respect, even admiration, can be found in the contemporary wartime sources, but Bull’s examples border on distortion. He further depoliticizes the meaning of the war by turning every runaway slave into a happy minstrel who flocked to the Union Army in order to sing and dance for the Federal troops. These reservations about do not discredit the book. They actually help us understand how Union veterans like Bull found meaning in their Civil War experience after Appomattox.

Even recognition of his former enemies could never free Bull from his own wartime Hades. On his way to the Grand Review in Washington, D.C., shortly after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, he and his comrades returned to Chancellorsville. Standing near the log cabin where two years earlier dying, desperate men covered the ground, he found himself transported back in time. Bull lived again “in my memory” the interminable night “where such suffering was endured.” “I felt a great sense of gratitude to God,” he wrote, “that I was alive and homeward bound.”

 

Originally published in the June 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here