Book recalls Civil War through the eyes of a news editor

September 21, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Mixing first-hand experiences with the skills of a seasoned journalist, Melvin Dwinell delivered some of the most valuable accounts of the Civil War published in newspapers.

Dwinell’s stories as a war correspondent and Confederate lieutenant are chronicled in “Dear Courier: The Civil War Correspondence of Editor Melvin Dwinell,” a new book by Ford Risley, associate dean for undergraduate and graduate education in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications at Penn State. The extensive collection of Dwinell’s letters to his newspaper take readers into Confederate camps and onto battlefields with vivid description and powerful storytelling.

"Dwinell gave his readers news of the Civil War from a hometown perspective,” Risley said. "Some of his best stories are when he provided snapshots of daily life in the Confederate Army.”

Dwinell, said Risley, described the joy of the troops in getting packages from home, and people's excitement at seeing a Union spy balloon for the first time. He also wrote about the danger of picket duty and the sadness of witnessing a soldier executed for killing another soldier.

“As editor, [Dwinell] knew that readers wanted to keep up with how the men fighting in the war were faring."

— Ford Risley, author of "Dear Courier: The Civil War Correspondence of Editor Melvin Dwinell"

Dwinell’s journey was not a typical one. Born in Vermont in 1825, he fell in love with the South after moving to Georgia. He purchased the Rome (Georgia) Courier before the war and became its editor. When the fighting began, Dwinell joined the Eighth Georgia Infantry and started writing letters, which were published in his newspaper. The book showcases Dwinell’s unique perspective, as well as the important role he and his newspaper played for the citizens of Rome.

“As editor, he knew that readers wanted to keep up with how the men fighting in the war were faring,” Risley said. “Everybody in Rome knew somebody in the Eighth Georgia. It might have been a husband, a son, a neighbor. Week in and week out, he told readers what those men were doing."

Dwinell was wounded at Gettysburg, and he described the price paid by the Confederacy at the pivotal battle: “The carnage was greater probably than on any other field since the commencement of this wicked war.” He resigned from the army after being elected to the Georgia legislature. The Courier's place of operation was wrecked by Union troops when they captured Rome in 1864. Undaunted, Dwinell rebuilt the newspaper after the war and published it for another 20 years.

Dwinell’s letters are valuable as a narrative account of the Eighth Georgia, a unit that took part in many of the major campaigns and battles in the East. The letters also have a richness and forthrightness that a seasoned journalist can provide, Risley said. Dwinell's personal letters to his family in Vermont, also included in the collection, provide insight into his reasons for fighting for the South.

“He became a die-hard Confederate,” Risley said. “You see it in his personal letters to his family. They are remarkable.”

Risley a professor of communications, has authored or edited three other books. “Dear Courier: The Civil War Correspondence of Editor Melvin Dwinell” is published by the University of Tennessee Press as part of its “Voices of the Civil War” series.

  • Ford Risley

    Ford Risley, associate dean of undergraduate and graduate education at the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated September 24, 2018