William McCarter,
edited by Kevin E. O'Brien,
My Life in the Irish Brigade:
The Civil War Memoirs
of Private William McCarter,
116th Pennsylvania Infantry

(Da Capo Press, 1996; 2003)

William McCarter's diary is an important addition to primary information on Civil War soldiers. The reason it is important is that firsthand accounts of the Union Army's famed Irish Brigade are all by officers. McCarter's account is the only one known from an Army private.

At first you might think that his account would not be very well written or as refined as an officer's. You will be wonderfully surprised! McCarter was very eloquent in his writing. He goes into great and very readable details about skirmishes and everyday army life in the Irish Brigade. A down-to-earth person, he was 21 when he entered the Union Army. He was at the Battle of Fredericksburg, where he was wounded trying to take Marye's Heights and the horrible stone wall where many Union soldiers were wounded and killed.

McCarter came to the attention of General Thomas Meagher, the Irish Brigade's commander, who pressed McCarter to be his orderly. McCarter's handwriting impressed Meagher's subordinates and was brought to his attention. McCarter copied many of Meagher's orders for his subordinates, which were clear and understandable. Because of his closeness to the general and others, he observed many things about them. He was present when the general was drunk. He also took care of the mail. He was asked by his fellow soldiers to write letters and other things for them since he was known to have good penmanship.

The memoir flows well and is very readable and interesting. There are footnotes to explain some of his subjects, and there are lots of maps and a few pictures of McCarter, generals and other soldiers. The way McCarter writes you could imagine yourself being there with him. He wrote his memoir for his family in 1879 using his diary as the main source. Kevin O'Brien edited this memoir to make it even more readable, and he added the maps and photos.

If you are interested in the Irish who served in the Civil War, here is a wonderful book to read and own! It gives a firsthand account of what life for a private in the Union Army was like. It also gives you an account of a soldier who charged the stone wall at Marye's Height at the Battle of Fredericksburg. McCarter's memoir has an important place in any Civil War collection.

- Rambles
written by Benet Exton
published 14 May 2005

Buy it from Amazon.com.