As the journal of E. Augustus Garrison opens, the Civil War looms as a reality just beginning to touch his home in Copiah County, Miss., and it ends eight years later, after his life has taken a complete and irreversible turn. From his trials as a lay preacher to his family's slaves, through duty as a sergeant in the 2nd Mississippi Infantry Battalion (later the 48th Mississippi Infantry) and chaplain to the 48th Mississippi Infantry, to his scrapping efforts to reconstruct the genteel life he had known before the war as a cotton planter, Garrison's journal probes deeply into the mentality of a young man coming to grips with the enormous changes confronting the nation in the 1860s.
During the war, Garrison kept his journal only sporadically, and most of his military experiences are recounted in memoir form, written after the fact from recollection, notes, or other journals. The narrative veers in form from daily journal to memoir, sometimes seamlessly, sometimes with odd gaps or elisions. This organization leads to some periods far better documented than others. Particularly well documented are those periods while Garrison was at home before enlisting, and on leave during the first five months of 1863 and in October, 1864 -- precisely when his military duties were at a minimum. Though written after the fact, his descriptions of the Peninsular Campaign are fine accounts of the clever campaign waged by Confederate commanders to delay the advance of the Army of the Potomac, and though far briefer, his accounts of Antietam, Fredericksburg, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Petersburg, particularly the Crater, provide useful, small anecdotes. But it is Garrison's willful decision to ignore the changing tide of fortunes of Confederate arms, his desire utterly to ignore federal victories on either the small scale or grand that makes his memoirs so interesting. His pervasive belief in the righteousness of his cause and his faith in Confederate arms arches over everything, leaving him secure in his belief that Southern manhood was never defeated, and unable to accept the changes in status that resulted from the loss of the war.
The hardships of the first four years of Reconstruction are well portrayed in the second half of the journal, and historically, are among the most important parts of the journal. A palpable sense of the pain, arrogance, and indignation that characterize Garrison's attitude smolders in his heart before leaping into the flames of family turmoil. The quixotic mixture of doting upon his infant son and bitter criticism of his parents and wife appears to arise directly out of Garrison's changing social and political position, filtered through the personal, and in this way the journal provides an intimate sense of the adjustments that many southern planters endured during Reconstruction, and their ways of coping with a new political system in which the possibility of equality seemed to threaten. Through Garrison's eyes as well, a more diffuse view of some of the adjustments required of freedmen emerges, as the transition from slavery, through contract labor into sharecropping runs full cycle.
Among numerous vignettes from the Reconstruction period worth noting is a curious account of a Black man, Dr. Dab, making a stir by claiming to identify thieves and recover stolen objects, and an interesting encounter between an elderly former slave, Aunt Silva, and Garrison over the apparent decline in his faith. When Aunt Silva inquired why Garrison did not preach to the "black folks" like he used to, he replied "I have not seen a week since I neglected my Christian duties, but what I have had serious thoughts, and my conscience would often reprove me, and this old negroes words were the right ones, I felt they were sent by the spirit, I made some feeble reply, but we conversed together for a half hour on religious topics, and she knowing my case, cause of coldness &c, gave me sound advice, 'to look up' 'Cast your burden on the Lord &c' and it did me good" (p. 175-176). While such stories are very brief, to some degree they suggest the manner in which Black and white spiritual expression had grown together in the South.