(May 2013 Civil War News Book Review - Web Exclusive)
The Fellers Called Him Bill: A Story of the American Civil War and One Young Man’s Incredible Journey Through It. By P.J. Kearns. 3 vols. Historical fiction. 1,032 pp., 2012, Xlibris, www.wxlibris.com, $283.
When I received a three-volume set about a soldier named William Stow from the tiny Vermont mountain town of Calais, I did not know what to make of it. According to the introduction in volume one, author P.J. Kearns had purchased several letters belonging to this young man and later found 70 more at the University of Vermont.
Originally I thought this would be another collection of edited and transcribed Vermont soldiers’ letters, something akin to those of Wilbur Fisk or those in the recent Shouts and Whispers. What was in the box was a surprise.
Instead of being a transcribed edition of Private Stow’s letters, this is a three-volume history of the war with Stow’s letters as the connecting piece. Even more interesting is fictional dialogue by characters in Stow’s letters when there are gaps in the correspondence.
The story starts in the prewar era with a study of slavery and abolition, continues through the war and ends with emancipation and the postwar lives of the war’s major players. Along the way, sidebars discuss topics such as life at home, weaponry and Reconstruction.
The book is truly an odd potpourri that somehow works. As to Private Stow, like 400 other Vermonters he met his end in the terrible Battle of the Wilderness, where they literally saved the Army of the Potomac from being split in two.
Vermonters have a saying about boiling the sugar from the sap and reducing it down to the smallest amount possible. Despite ignoring this admonition, Kearns’ work is readable and highly recommended. It is written for the lay reader or one without a serious foundation in the war and sometimes perhaps wanders a bit.
Even the fictional text is written in the traditional Yankee twang the original speakers would have used. It fills in the gaps, but much of the sap could have been boiled away to reveal a clearer picture of Private Stow and his experiences in the Old Vermont Brigade.
There are some problems, such misidentifying Robert E. Lee as a mere lieutenant general and Stonewall Jackson as a full general. Primary-source footnotes are lacking. Of course, this book was not written for the scholar. A thorough editing by a competent historian, however, would have been very useful.
The Fellers Called Him Bill is an interesting story of the Civil War. Beautifully printed in full color, it presents a complete picture of the Civil War era — from slavery through Reconstruction and the remembrance period.
Kearns’ work is informative and would be appreciated on many library shelves in rural Vermont where Civil War titles are severely lacking. It is highly recommended for those who can afford it and who want a full understanding of the war and its relationship to a private from a central Vermont hill town. It may be worth it alone for the color pictures and the story of the war.
Robert Grandchamp has written nine books on American military history, including Colonel Edward E. Cross and the award-winning Boys of Adams’ Battery G. He lives in northern Vermont where he is working on a study of postwar regimental memory.