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'Testament' Of Civil War

In 1998, Benson Bobrick, author of the critically acclaimed book "Wide as the Waters," read about 90 letters written by his great-grandfather, Benjamin W. ("Webb") Baker, letters that had been buried in the desks and trunks of various relatives for almost a century.

Bobrick tells The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith "When I began to read them, I was stunned by the vividness and the power of them and the range of material that they contained. They cover the whole of the western theater of the war for all three years of the term of service in which he fought."

Now the letters serve as guide and timeline of his latest book, "Testament: A Soldier's Story of the Civil War." In it, Bobrick fills in the history of the Civil War, showing one patriotic Union soldier's view of the war as well as the big picture surrounding him.

Webb was just an ordinary Illinois farm boy, Bobrick says, "a 19-year-old young man who was stirred by unionist sentiment and answered Abraham Lincoln's first call for volunteers and fought in a number of engagements in the Western theater and in some ways I think his letters give the fullest account of the war that has ever been given by a common soldier. I think that's what makes for their objective importance."

Bobrick begins this book before the war - detailing the differences in opinion and way of life between the southern slave states and the northern free states. The issue, of course, wasn't necessarily slavery, but to many, it was States' rights. In a nutshell, the southern states wanted more autonomy, while the northern states supported the Union and a stronger federal government that could overrule state decisions.

In one of Webb's letters from 1861, he writes, "I feel very brave sometimes and I think I should be in an engagement. I never would leave the field alive unless the stars and stripes floated triumphant. I do not know how it may be if there is a battle and I should fall, tell with pride and not with grief, that I fell in defense of liberty. Pray that I may be a true soldier."

Commenting on the letter, Bobrick says Webb "wasn't illiterate, but he was a relatively uneducated farm boy when he joined up, but there is a natural eloquence in him, which brings to life all of his experiences in camp and battle before and after he fought in an engagement, all the loneliness, the fears, the uncertainties, the undaunted courage. It's all in his letters, mostly to his mother, and it just brings to life what it must have been like to have been a private soldier in that war."

Bobrick gives a history of Abraham Lincoln detailing his losing campaign for Illinois Senate in 1858 against Stephen A. Douglas. It was then when he was first noticed by the public. As it happened, at age 16, Webb attended a debate between Lincoln and Douglas. After that, Webb was a confirmed Union man. At that time, he was ambivalent about the slavery issue (as was Lincoln) but he was very clear in his patriotism and his support for the Union. And three years later, when it was time to defend the Union, he stepped up and joined the Union forces.

In the beginning, as things got started, his regiment did not see battle for quite a while. They kept almost reaching Confederate forces, but never finding them. In many of his letters, Webb expressed his frustration. It wasn't that he necessarily wanted to fight, but he felt useless and was ready for some action. But Webb would see plenty of action in his three years of service.

In one very bloody battle in October 1862, Webb's younger brother John, who had just joined the army, was killed. Webb buried his brother on the battlefield and it affected him for the rest of the war and the rest of his life.

Webb writes, "I send you a lock of John's hair. Everything was taken from his pockets, but his New Testament. John died like a man and soldier at his post and in the front rank would I have died in his stead – my only, my true and noble hearted brother."

Shortly after Webb died, one of his children compiled all the surviving letters and prepared a typescript in the hopes that they would be published. That never happened, but in 1917, at the height of World War I, a handful of excerpts were published in a sporting magazine called "The Outing" in hopes that their patriotism would encourage young men to enlist in the Army.

Entwined around Webb and his experiences, Bobrick constructs a very thorough account of the battles and troop movements on both sides. He also touches on public sentiment throughout the war.

Read an excerpt from Chapter Eight. Click here.