Author: John Huelskamp

Publisher: Barrington Group

ISBN : 978-0692348826

I enjoy books about American history and military history, so when I discovered Friends of the Wigwam, I was definitely interested. The book tells the story of a group of friends from Illinois during the 1850s and 1860s who grow up and deal with the issues facing the country as the United States slides toward Civil War. In the book we see some real national heroes, such as Lincoln and Grant, and some much lesser known individuals.

The main theme of the book is the story of the “friends” – a group of boys and girls in rural Illinois who become friends, and their divergent paths, as they are swept up into the Civil War. The author has clearly done a lot of research and seems to have uncovered some new material about these and other individuals from Illinois who played a significant role in the battles in the western theaters during the Civil War, especially at Shiloh, Vicksburg and in eastern Tennessee.

On the whole the book is interesting, but unfortunately a bit choppy, as a lot of chapters are built around specific events or letters based on the author’s deep research. The writing and character development is also a bit simplistic. While the book is about relationships between friends before and during the Civil War, much of the prose reads more like a young adult novel. Where the book really shines is when the author lets the characters speak for themselves through their letters and other communications. We can see how much change they expected, and how little they understood the nature of the upcoming war.

Some of the stories in the book seem almost impossible, but in the end notes the author provides the actual stories. For example, one of the friends of the Wigwam, TJ, suffers a gruesome wound in battle that leaves him blind. In the end notes the author describes TJ and his life after the Civil War. Another interesting feature of the book is the story of one of the girls, also a friend of the Wigwam, who goes off to war to fight as a man. The book illustrates through her story and the story of Elmer Ellsworth, just how intimate the war was, and how interlocked the relationships. Ellsworth was one of the first fatalities in the Civil War, killed removing a Confederate flag from a hotel in Alexandria, and was known to the group that called themselves the Friends of the Wigwam.

While the book takes place during the lead up to the Civil War and the actual fighting, this isn’t necessarily a book for Civil War buffs. Rather, it is a coming of age and friendship novel set during the Civil War. The research is well done, the letters and original artifacts are moving. The author clearly enjoys the period and has done some interesting original research. Unfortunately the story telling and character development leave a bit to be desired.