The Folly and the Madness

The Civil War Letters of Captain Orlando S. Palmer, Fifteenth Arkansas Infantry

  • Author(s): Cutrer, Thomas W., editor
  • Series: Voices of the Civil War
  • Imprint: University of Tennessee Press
  • Publication Date: 2023-10-27
  • Status: Active
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With a closeness perhaps unique to siblings orphaned young, Orlando and Artimisia “Missie” Palmer exchanged intimate letters throughout their lives. These letters (interspersed with additional letters from Oliver Kennedy, the Palmers’ first cousin) offer a clear and entertaining window into the life and times of a junior Confederate officer serving in the Western Theater of the Civil War.

Though he initially felt Americans would see “the folly and the madness” of going to war, Orlando enlisted as a private in what would become Company H of the First (later Fifteenth) Arkansas Infantry, informing his sister that he had volunteered “not for position, not for a name, but from patriotic motivation.” However, he was ambitious enough to secure an appointment as Maj. Gen. William Joseph Hardee’s personal secretary; he then rose to become his regiment’s sergeant major, his company’s first lieutenant, and later captain and brigade adjutant. Soldier letters typically report only what can be observed at the company level, but Palmer’s high-ranking position offers a unique view of strategic rather than tactical operations.

Palmer’s letters are not all related to his military experience, though, and the narrative is enhanced by his nuanced reflections on courtship customs and personal relationships. For instance, Palmer frequently attempts to entertain Missie with witticisms and tales of his active romantic life: “We have so much to do,” he quips, “that we have no time to do anything save to visit the women. I am in love with several dozen of them and am having a huge time generally.”

The Folly and the Madness adds depth to the genre of Civil War correspondence and provides a window into the lives of ordinary southerners at an extraordinary time.

THOMAS W. CUTRER is the prolific author or editor of more than a dozen books on the American Civil War and the American Southwest. He is professor emeritus of history and American studies at Arizona State University.