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Book Review - Love and Valor, The Intimate Civil War Letters Between Captain Jacob and Emeline Ritner, Edited by Charles F. Larimer

The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 4, Number 5

We Americans have just experienced the worst disaster that has ever struck our country. How can we put out another newsletter, review yet another Civil War book, and care what people did almost 150 years ago? We weren't going to. But once we started, we realized that looking at history helps us to understand what's happening today.

Love and Valor is a book of Civil War letters between husband Jacob Ritner and his wife Emeline, discovered and further researched by their great-great grandson, Charles Larimer. Jacob was a captain in the 25th Iowa Infantry, and Larimer has done an admirable job collecting these letters, providing commentary notes about the Iowa Infantry, and giving a historical context.

It is in that context that we recognize a few differences, but mostly the similarities between 1861 and 2001. Those Americans were involved in a war against a threat to freedom, the outcome of which was extremely uncertain. Jacob's letters, as today's soldiers' e-mails might, dealt with politics, children, love, and thoughts of home. They know they were, as we soon may be, sacrificing for a just cause. Both sides knew they would win. But, they did not know at what cost.

Unlike today, Jacob thought it would be a short war; we think this war will be a long one. Jacob's daily routine consisted of foraging, drills, and marching. Today's soldiers' duties involve telecommunications, aerodynamics, and nuclear physics. Jacob was paid about $15 per month; our soldiers earn about $700. Of course, unlike Jacob's unit, today's soldiers won't pick their officers by voting on who could shout, "Whiskey for six!" the loudest.

Every letter shows us Jacob's and Emeline's naïvete, their sentimentality, and their mundane ailments and complaints. It's easy to dismiss their concerns because we know who won. We don't have that advantage today.

Through this book, we see one thing clearly, one thing which we share across these many generations. As Jacob writes from his heart, he says we pray our sons (and today, our daughters) will never have to be soldiers.

We are drawn to this book and these letters because it is by and about people who were just as naïve, mundane and sentimental as we are today. In spite of it, they overcame and thrived after the worst disaster that ever struck their country. They were just like us.