In recent years, there has been keen interest in biographies and memoirs of ordinary soldiers involved in the Civil War. This kind of material is easy to find on and by officers and other elites from both sides of the conflict, but readers have a desire to know what the ordinary, down-to-earth soldier felt and said about the War. Theirs was a different perspective; they did not always have the full picture of the conflict as the generals did. They usually only knew what they were told or what they saw with their own eyes.
One of these otherwise unremarkable soldiers was a young Texan by the name of William J. Oliphant. At sixteen he volunteered to serve in the Texas 6th Regiment, made up of men from his home city of Austin and other nearby Texas towns. He was the only son (he had two sisters) of his parents, who gave him permission to volunteer to serve in the Confederate Army. He was enlisted in 1862 in Company G of the Sixth Texas Infantry, also known as the Travis Rifles. William Oliphant was asked, according to his introduction to his memoirs, by a “Daughter of the Confederacy” to write about his experience during the Civil War. He did this around 1911.
James M. McCaffrey edited Oliphant’s memoirs and added material to put the events recorded into historical context. McCaffrey also notes errors and makes corrections since it was many years later that Oliphant wrote about his experiences in the War; he may have forgotten or confused some details. To those who may ask why they should bother to read the quite literate Oliphant’s memoirs, McCaffrey answers, “Oliphant’s memoirs are one of the few by a Texas Confederate.”
Oliphant writes of being at Arkansas Post when it was surrendered to the Federals in 1863, and about his experience as a prisoner in Illinois. He was later exchanged and rejoined his regiment, which was now part of the Army of Tennessee. He was at the battles of Missionary Ridge, Ringgold Gap, Pickett’s Mill, and Atlanta, where he was captured and imprisoned once more. He was exchanged in March 1865 but was unable to rejoin his regiment before the War was over. He reminisces on his trip back to Texas and his experience of life after the War.
McCaffrey includes several photographs of Oliphant, who died in 1930, and his family, as well as several maps. He uses italics to differentiate between the actual text of Oliphant’s memoir and his own commentary or corrections. He includes an annotated roster of Company G, a bibliography, and an index. A primary source for research into the Civil War, Only a Private is not a dry academic tome. On the contrary, Oliphant’s memoir is quite lively and full of interesting information that appeals to academic and ordinary Civil War enthusiast alike.
James M. McCaffrey is a professor of history at the University of Houston-Downtown, where he specializes in American military topics. McCaffrey is the author of The Army of Transformation: 1790-1860 (2006), co-author of Wake Island Pilot (2005), author of This Band of Heroes (1996), and Army of Manifest Destiny (1994).