Book Reviews  

Civil War News, November 2014

Robert L. Durham

"I have read many other collections of letters, and this is one of the best.  Griffin was a patriotic and loyal soldier, as his highly literate letters reflect.

 

Many times he tells his beloved Nerva that he wants nothing more than to be at home with her and his children, but he is determined to see the rebellion put down first.

 

Poignantly, he continuously assures Nerva, and himself, with premature predictions that the Confederacy is on its last legs and he’ll soon be home.  Readers’ knowledge that he would not survive the war makes Griffin’s longing for home that much more moving.

 

 This is a well-written and edited collection of letters from a common soldier.  I highly recommend it to anyone interested in first-hand war accounts from the viewpoint of a common soldier.  His descriptions of the campaigns in which the 2nd Minnesota took part will make the book an invaluable addition to the library of those with an interest in the war’s Western Theater."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chanticleer Book Reviews, November 2017

"The daily trials and travails of a Civil War soldier from Minnesota - a must read for Civil War historians.

Collected and annotated by the great-great-grandson of a Union soldier, these recollections of the Civil War take on new life and meaning in current times.

Nick K. Adams, a retired school teacher, was fortunate to have access to letters written by his ancestor, Brainard Griffin. A Minnesota farmer, Griffin volunteered to fight for the Union, leaving behind his wife Minerva, their two young daughters and a baby son. The weekly letters he wrote, 100 in all, express his longing to be back home while describing in often minute detail the life of an ordinary combatant.

 

Griffin wrote the letters in quiet times, holding a board or his knapsack on his lap as a table. The repeated themes are poignant: loving messages to his wife and children, advice for the management of the farm, even bits of gossip. Money worries were constant - at one point Griffin washed the clothes of other soldiers so he could send more of his pay back to his family. Around the mid-point in his service he avows that "experience is a good teacher," and assures Nerva that when he returns he will "prize" his time with family and home.

Griffin's regiment traveled extensively through Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama, constantly on the alert, experiencing battles, sickness and the travails of heat, mud and snow. He observed the ravages of war in the farming communities and burned-down towns he passed through and saw firsthand the horrors of a field hospital. He met slaves and slavers and engaged them in personal conversation. He often lamented "the curse of slavery" and vowed to fight to end it. From the outset he believed that the war would soon be over - in a few months, or a year at the most. His accounts of mealtimes indicate the increasing stress on the army's resources: from coffee twice a day, pancakes, beef, fresh fruits, even pies, to half rations for months at a time, and towards the end of his accounts, mostly salted meat and crackers.

Despite his optimism that the war would soon end, and his repeated visions of returning to Minerva and the children, Griffin was killed in the first few moments of the savage Battle of Chickamauga, two years after his first letter home, and was buried by Confederate soldiers.

Adams has taken care to present the letters in their original form. Before each section, he highlights the coming contents and includes a map of troop movements. Though there is repetition, it seems fitting that almost every letter begins and ends with loving greetings to Griffin's wife and children, and that all express the simple daily trials of the foot soldier. Griffin had illnesses, lost teeth, grew a beard, and never ceased encouraging his wife in her work on their homestead.

His homey remarks and even a bit of good-natured joking show him as a strong willed, positive person, and his views on the progress of the national struggle reveal him as a thoughtful patriot with a mind to the future of his country and all its inhabitants."

5-Star Readers' Favorite Review

"Away at War introduces the reader to the terrible impact, the pain and anxiety, and the untold suffering war causes family members left behind. A moving chronicle of the experience of war and a compelling story withrelevant historical references. Well crafter, reads like a real piece of history!" 

 

Chanticleer Book Reviews, February 2019

"Every reader will feel enriched reading this vivid, charming, and poignant account of farm life in the mid-19th century amidst the backdrop of the Civil War."

 

"In 1861, like so many other American men, David Brainard Griffin took leave of his family and enlisted in the army, volunteering as a soldier for the Union. Also like so many other American men, he hoped he'd be home in a few months, that this Civil War would soon be over, and he'd be reunited with his wife, Minerva, his daughters Alice, seven, Ida May, five, and his infant son, Edgar Lincoln. To minimize the pain of separation from his family, he wrote them letters from the field of battle, 100 weekly accounts of what he was doing and witnessing as a 2nd Minnesota Volunteer. While Away at War is historic fiction, the letters are genuine, and all the characters are based on actual people and events. The author of this fine account, Nick K. Adams, is the great-great-grandson of Corporal Griffin.

As compelling as the Corporal's letters are, the mainstay of this book is about those left behind on the Minnesota prairie. In the introduction, Adams notes, "I invite you, dear reader, into the lives of this family who represents the high personal cost that waging war - for whatever cause, good or evil - inevitably produces." In this manner, the reader spends time with a family doing the best it can while the head of the household is away.

One feels like an invisible member of the clan while watching Minerva and her children go about their ordinary, but in many ways extraordinary, lives. Their days are made up of chores. They care for chickens and livestock, barter eggs and butter in the nearby village of Alba, for fruit, shoes and fabric. They make candles out of beeswax and tallow, and plant crops for harvest. Livestock are slaughtered. Minerva teaches her daughters to make cheese, a skill she learned from her mother during her girlhood in Vermont. They visit with area family members and friends, enjoy spring and summer days, and bundle warmly for the frigid Minnesota winters. Alice attends school and, eventually, Ida May does as well. Edgar Lincoln graduates from baby clothes to his first set of overalls and boots.

It's the minutiae of life, the everyday details that build and hold this family, and every family, together. But the reminder of the Civil War is always there. Alice uses a game of checkers to explain warfare to her little sister, and the family gathers to read and reread letters from a husband and father they miss dearly. They write to his, as well, letting him know how they are coping in his absence. And, of course, there is the added tension of not knowing how long the war will last and whether Brainard will be among the fortunate men to make it home.

 

Like the best young adult novels, this book draws a universal audience. Every reader will feel enriched reading this vivid, charming, and poignant account of farm life in the mid-19th century amidst the backdrop of the Civil War. In addition to an account of family life, one learns much about practical matters in a rural, historic setting.

 

Teachers who use Laura Ingalls Wilder's books in their curriculums will want to add Away at War: A Civil War Story of the Family Left Behind to their lesson plans. There's a connection between the authors: Alice Griffin married Laura Ingalls Wilder's cousin! For those interested in simply reading Brainard Griffin's letters, Adams published them as a collection in an earlier work, My Dear Wife and Children: Civil War Letters from a 2nd Minnesota Volunteer. Put in the context of this lovely novel, however, the letters are a reminder of what was happening in these lives when pen wasn't put to paper, when a mother and her children had to do whatever was necessary to get through the day and rest for the coming one. This book is both simple and profound, a reminder of a time and place during a tumultuous time in American history.

 

Away at War: A Civil War Story of the Family Left Behind  won 1st Place in the 2017 CIBA competitions for unique stories of the United States, the Lamamie Awards. 

 

My Dear Wife and Children: Civil War Letters from a 2nd Minnesota Volunteer won Mr. Adams 1st Place in the 2016 CIBA competitions for Memoir, the Journey Awards. 

Civil War News, December 2010

 

Author Nick K. Adams, a retired elementary school teacher, has brought his background and expertise in education to this wonderful publication.  While the scenario between the two Civil War soldiers is fictional, the letters of David Brainard Griffin, 2nd Minnesota, exist to give a thoughtful look into the life of the ordinary soldier.

 

Griffin's letters show a devoted, concerned family man who misses his wife and children.  His writing contrasts the soldiers in camp where "some [are] writing, some reading, some playing cards, some sleeping, some cooking, a'washing their clothes, and loitering about the camp" with the excitement, dread and fear of actual confrontation with the Confederate Army.

 

This is an excellent teaching tool for teachers and parents who are interested in presenting an accurate perspective of the Civil War and its participants through fiction and non-fiction.

 

The book would be appropriate for fourth through sixth grades.  The author's goal is to make history come alive and become personal.  He has succeeded.

 

  • Janet L. Bucklew, American Studies, Pennsylvania State University

 

 

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