Thursday, December 29, 2005

Historians Recall Favorite Unit Histories, pt. 1

(ten years ago, or so)

In 1995, Civil War Regiments quarterly surveyed a host of oft-published authors, historians, battlefield park rangers, and others about what they considered their “favorite” unit-related study of the Civil War era. We did not specify the size of the organization, whether a regiment, a brigade, or even an army. In fact, we did not even restrict them to unit histories, asking that they name any book that was important to them if no unit-related studies came to mind.

In the end, 35 people who have devoted a good portion of their lives to reading about the Civil War era sent in essays of varying lengths (from a few paragraphs to a couple pages). Ted Savas and I added our own, then collected them all together in the “books” issue of CWR, volume four, number three.

If you can track down a copy of issue 4:3, all of these short essays are worth reading for the authoritative commentary on what sets certain books apart from the pack, and personal thoughts on why some books had a more lasting impact than others. Even if you do have the journal copy, you may enjoy reading this recap, recalling a book or two you meant to read but forgot to find before other distractions pushed it aside. I will simply name the books and quote one or two of each respondent’s remarks while paraphrasing others.

A number of the authors chose books that cemented their interest in the subject. Others named a particular title because the featured unit was historically significant, because of the skill of the author and the narrative technique, or because the authentic observations transcended more common accounts. Some discussed the reliability of their favorite books, or availability, if rare. Several survey participants could not resist naming more than one book, and fortunately for them they were not graded on the assignment. All in all, the exercise made for a fine unit history reading list.

On the editorial side, in gathering the essays for publication, no effort was made to balance the sections to which various authors and historians might be associated (Northern or Southern historians, Eastern or Western). I don’t recall how many letters we sent out. As mentioned, about three dozen people returned an essay, two or three responded too late for publication, some unknown number did not respond at all, and one prominent historian sent an awkwardly whiny note declining to participate in the project because a recent book review we'd published -- one that took his latest work to task for a couple of items, but which nonetheless proclaimed his book to be the best on a particular campaign -- had left him “wounded.” To quote the immortal Billy Pilgrim, “
so it goes.”

Civil War book buyers will recognize the names of the respondents, since most of them have a book or body of work still on the shelves, or else long-time associations with a particular battlefield park, campaign, or theater.

And so here we go, individually, our author/historian/publisher in bold, followed by his choice, and select comments. Those books that received multiple mentions are grouped together, for the most part.

William C. Davis
History of the First Kentucky Brigade, by Ed Porter Thompson, "one of the most accurate and well-founded of all unit histories by an actual participant." It was one of the earliest Confederate unit histories to appear after the war, and as Davis discovered, Thompson "was actually working on it even before the surrenders. He interviewed scores of soldiers, borrowed the few diaries in existence, and had the benefit of being custodian of a major chunk of the brigade’s official archives, which he later turned over to the National Archives.”

Steven E. Woodworth
If "unit" can refer to an army, he chooses Bruce Catton's “incomparable” Army of the Potomac trilogy: Mr. Lincoln’s Army, Glory Road, and Stillness at Appomattox. For smaller organizations, Steven named Richard Moe's, The Last Full Measure: the Life and Death of the First Minnesota Volunteers (New York, 1993), which suffered 82% casualties at Gettysburg. According to Woodworth, "Moe skillfully blends all of the aspects that went into soldiering in the Civil War, such as camp life, boredom, combat, the food, imprisonment, including such details as the soldiers' insatiable desire for news and newspapers. The narrative flows smoothly, with none of the sense of reading a meaningless compilation of facts that one gets with some books."

Gary Gallagher
Lee's Lieutenants: A Study in Command, 3 vols (New York 1942-1944), by Douglas Southall Freeman. Gallagher notes that Freeman's close identification with the Army of Northern Virginia “sometimes prompts questions about his ability to engage in detached analysis,” and also that “the aroma of the Lost Cause undoubtedly permeates Lee’s Lieutenants, and in some ways Freeman can be considered the 20th-century heir to Jubal Early in Confederate historiography.” And yet, Freeman’s masterpiece still reveals “clear-eyed criticism” of the chain of command, and “never fails to place events on the battlefield within a broader context.”

Lawrence L. Hewitt
Lee's Lieutenants. Hewitt highlights Freeman’s “fog of war” style, giving the reader “no more information than that which was available to the individual being discussed in the text.” Hewitt concludes that “as an example of unit history, Lee’s Lieutenants set a standard that can rarely be equaled.”

Theodore P. Savas
Lee's Lieutenants, the first volume of which was given to him by his Greek immigrant grandfather. At age 11, that was Ted’s first foray into Civil War literature, and it sparked a life-long passion. Ted writes that "the Introduction to the final volume is one of the most moving tributes I have ever had the pleasure of reading. . . . The colossal scope and breadth of the Civil War finally began to dawn on me after I closed the cover of the third installment."

Tom Broadfoot
Top dog at Broadfoot Publishing, Tom’s entire entry reads, “My favorite book, by far, is A Southern Woman's Story (McCowat-Mercer, Jackson, TN 1959), by Phoebe Yates Pember. If you’re going to read one book on the Civil War, that’s the one.”

John Coski
Coski named John O. Casler's, Four Years in the Stonewall Brigade, but was compelled to list three other titles as well: William Miller Owen’s, In Camp and Battle with the Washington Artillery, Ephraim A. Wilson’s, Memoirs of the War (10th Illinois Infantry), and John M. Favill’s, The Diary of a Young Officer (57th New York Infantry). Of Casler’s book, Coski wrote, “although the memoir is not a regimental history, Casler’s affiliation with the 33rd Virginia influenced me to create a character in that unit in a never-to-be-published novel about the Sharpsburg campaign." Coski, whose job I would like to have for a year or so, added, “I have had occasion to write several exhibit labels which have made John Casler and his reminiscences very real to me. In the collections of the Museum of the Confederacy are several items donated by Casler: a steel spoon and fork combination; a brooch which Casler made for his sister out of the hoof of Gen. Turner Ashby’s horse; and a small box which Casler took from the body of a dead Federal soldier at Chancellorsville. Stenciled in gothic lettering on the lid of the box is ‘Help Yourself.’”

Craig Symonds
Shelby Foote's, The Civil War, A Narrative (Random House, 1958-1974). Symonds was 12-years-old when he received the just-published Volume One. He writes, "From the first words, I was hooked." Foote's masterpiece "is not a unit history, but it shares with many of the best works of that genre the ability to focus a sharp, bright beam of light on the role of individuals--on who they were as well as on what they did." Among regimental histories, Symonds lists his favorites as John J. Pullen's, 20th Maine, a Volunteer Regiment in the Civil War, Lance J. Herdegen's and W.J.K. Beaudot's, In the Bloody Railroad Cut at Gettysburg, about the 6th Wisconsin (Dayton, 1991), and Richard Moe's, The Last Full Measure: The Life and Death of the First Minnesota Volunteers. For brigade histories, Symonds likes Alan Nolan's, The Iron Brigade (New York, 1961), and William C. Davis's, The Orphan Brigade (New York, 1980). Lastly, in the category of first-hand accounts by veterans, "my personal favorite is the irreverent account of Company Aytch, by Tennessee infantryman Sam Watkins.

Peter Cozzens
The Citizen Soldier; or Memoirs of a Volunteer (Cincinnati, 1879), by John Beatty. At age 16, Cozzens bought this book in an antiquarian bookshop for $10. A couple decades later it was worth nearly $200 and still his favorite Civil War book. Cozzens relates, "The charm of The Citizen Soldier lies in the absolute frankness -- and good humor -- with which Beatty recorded his war experiences. . . . Corps Commander Alexander McCook was a 'chucklehead,' with a grin that excited 'suspicion that he is still very green or deficient in the upper story.'" Happily, Beatty's volume has been reprinted a number of times since Cozzens first acquired a copy, making it available and affordable.

Arthur W. Bergeron, Jr.
W. H. Tunnard's, A Southern Record: the History of the Third Regiment Louisiana Infantry (Baton Rouge, 1866). Written fresh after the war, Tunnard recounts the exploits of the 3rd LA in such battles as Wilson's Creek, Elkhorn Tavern (Pea Ridge), Iuka, Corinth, Snyder's Bluff, and throughout the siege of Vicksburg (a day-by-day account) where the regiment defended the much-contested 3rd Louisiana Redan, the remnants of which you can still visit today. Bergeron concludes, "As he intended, Will Tunnard penned a story that not only commemorates the deeds of his regiment but also describes the agony and suffering its soldiers experienced during their four year service. No one interested in the Civil War will ever regret reading A Southern Record.

Leonne M. Hudson
Luis F. Emilio's A Brave Black Regiment: History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865 (Cambridge, 1868). "Judicious and analytical," Hudson writes, "A Brave Black Regiment is an impressive work not only as military history, but also because it captures the social, cultural, and political conditions of the period. . . . in a real sense, it is a study of the labyrinth of race relations in the nation during those turbulent times."

Stephen Engle
Emilio's A Brave Black Regiment, in conjunction with Russell Duncan (ed.), Blue-eyed Child of Fortune: the Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Georgia, 1991). "Shaw's letters," Engle asserts, provide an excellent occasion to capture the essence of the Civil War, as soldiers and commanders revealed themselves by taking pen to paper as they had never done before. . . .not only was Shaw's prose among the most eloquent of any soldier writing home during the war, it was perhaps the most revealing as well." Add to that Emilio's military account: "unlike hundreds of regimental histories which are wholly inadequate in detail, Emilio's narrative of the regiment’s operations in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida (at James Island, Fort Wagner, Olustee, Honey Hill and Boykin's Mill) paints a rich description of the regiment's operations."

Noah Andre Trudeau
Emilio's A Brave Black Regiment, and, A Record of the Service of the Fifty-Fifth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, a committee-written work based mostly on the diary of Colonel Charles B. Fox. “Each was authored by an officer, and each was based on extensive notes and journals of the period.” Trudeau laments that the “popular” Bantam edition of Emilio’s book “lacks the chapter Emilio added to the second edition (1894) about black prisoners of war, as well as the decision to excise the unit roster." The 55th is less known than the 54th, spending most of its service on the Charleston front. But the telling of the 55th’s story is, Trudeau says, like Emilio’s, “sober but vivid.” He supplies this example: “The men marched in silence, listening intently. It was evident to all that a battle was going on; and so deceptive was the sound, as it reverberated through the level pinelands, that it was supposed to be but a few miles off. Sore feet and weariness were forgotten.”

Chris E. Fonvielle
The Third New Hampshire and All About It (Boston, 1893), by Daniel Eldridge, who compiled “one of the most remarkable regimental histories in Civil War literature.” Fonvielle explains that this is much more than a record of the regiment’s role in battles. With chapters formed around each month and year of the unit’s service, 26 plans and maps (including 10 fold-out maps) of battlefields and campsites, 186 illustrations, 73 portraits, biographical sketches, rosters and service records (this monolithic work runs over 1,000 pages), it “is a regimental history, almanac, and compendium rolled into one."

Robert E. L. Krick
The History of a Brigade of South Carolinians, (Dayton, 1984), by J. F. J. Caldwell, on what was known first as Gregg’s, then McGowan’s Brigade. “The chief charm of Caldwell’s book – the quality that raises it above most competitors – is its wartime vintage,” Krick tells us. “It is remarkable to realize that Caldwell composed much of the text for this book while in winter quarters near Petersburg. When he came to record the brigade’s terrible moments at Fredericksburg or Spotsylvania, no doubt Caldwell called upon survivors in the trenches for whom the events still seemed fresh that winter of 1864-65.” Add to that the fact that the regiments in this brigade “featured prominently in most of the army’s big battles,” and the significance is plain. Krick recommends the 1984 Morningside reprint over the original 1866 collectible for the latter book’s enhancements: a model introduction, photos of many brigade members, and an index. Honorable mention in Krick’s essay goes to Henry W. Thomas’s History of the Doles-Cook Brigade, “both useful and attractive.”

Michael P. Musick
The History of a Brigade of South Carolinians (Philadelphia, 1866). In reading Michael Musick’s submission, I had to pause to look up the word “panegyrists,” and maybe you will, too. Musick calls Caldwell’s book “a generally credible depiction of an important fighting force within the myth-shrouded Army of Northern Virginia.” He names it his favorite for three reasons: 1) Caldwell was on hand for much of what is recorded; 2) he wrote it while events were still fresh and vivid, and “the cult of the Lost Cause had not yet descended to stifle every admission of human frailty. Our author frankly addresses the fact of desertion and the morale crisis of 1864-65.” 3) he writes well. It is, Musick concludes, “a genuine rarity, a gem to be cherished.”

Lesley J. Gordon
Warren Wilkinson’s Mother May You Never See the Sights I Have Seen: The Fifty-Seventh Massachusetts Veteran Volunteers in the Army of the Potomac 1864-1865 (Harper & Row, 1990). “Some regimental histories focus too narrowly on their subjects,” says Gordon. Not so with the late Warren Wilkinson’s history of the 57th MA, as he explores broader contexts of the soldier experience. Wilkinson “interweaves exciting scholarship from ‘new military’ historians (such as Gerald Linderman, Michael Barton, Marvin Cain, and John Keegan), into a traditional war genre to present a model for regimental histories. By the book’s end, the reader acquires not only knowledge of the regiment’s history and battle honors, but a deeper understanding of the Union war experience as a whole.”

Pat Brennan
Mother May You Never See the Sights I Have Seen: The Fifty-Seventh Massachusetts Veteran Volunteers in the Army of the Potomac 1864-1865. Brennan relates a story from the preface of Wilkinson’s book, in which the author discusses stumbling upon the story of the 57th MA while doing genealogical research – Wilkinson’s great-great-grandfather, Martin Farrell, was a corporal in the regiment – and how this interest in family history translated, “two years and 1,550 manuscript pages later,” into “one of the finest regimental histories in Civil War literature.” The regiment served for only a year and a half, but in joining the Army of the Potomac just before the launch of Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign, it was fairly ordained the unit would not remain green for long. As Brennan points out, during the regiment’s first battle, in the Wilderness, 48% of those engaged were casualties. “Losses mounted in successive engagements – Spotsylvania, North Anna, the early battles around Petersburg, the Crater, and the bloody engagement near the Weldon Railroad. At the conclusion of the latter action, three and one-half months after the regiment crossed the Rapidan River, only 29 combat soldiers and one officer remained standing in the ranks.”

Emory Thomas
Mother May You Never See the Sights I Have Seen: The Fifty-Seventh Massachusetts Veteran Volunteers in the Army of the Potomac 1864-1865. Thomas was instrumental in getting Wilkinson’s manuscript into the hands of a publisher, and we thank him for that. He was impressed with Wilkinson’s research, and doubly so with his ability to “think and write.” Thomas asked William C. “Jack” Davis to read some of what might become the “mother” of all regimentals. Thomas writes, “Jack concurred with my opinion of Warren’s abilities and with my idea of putting Warren in touch with M. S. “Buz” Wyeth at Harper & Row (now HarperCollins). And the rest is extremely good history. Warren’s Mother has spoiled me regarding unit histories. Unless someone does what Warren does. . .with the unit rosters, I find it difficult to take his or her work seriously.”

Richard A. Sauers
History of the 51st Regiment of P.V. and V.V. (Philadelphia, 1869), by Thomas H. Parker. Sauers reports, “Parker ended the war as captain of Company I, and although his writing style sometimes degenerated into purple prose, his history of the 51st Pennsylvania is one of the finest examples of an early regimental history.” The regiment served in the IX Corps, what Parker called Burnside’s “geography class.” And indeed, they got around. Sauers concludes, “These men not only stormed the bridge at Antietam, fought in the Crater, and held the line at Knoxville, but also emptied the jail in Camden Courthouse, North Carolina, fought provost guards in Columbus, Ohio, looted a sutler near Falmouth, drank ‘rat coffee’ on shipboard, and got lost in a Virginia snowstorm.”

Part Two, forthcoming:
Submissions by Maxine Turner, Glenn LaFantasie, John F. Marszalek, Archie McDonald, Alan Nolan, William Marvel, Michael Parrish, Harry Pfanz, Brian Pohanka, James I. Robertson, Wiley Sword, Jeffry Wert, John Hubbell, Bill Miller, John Hennessy, Albert Castel, and me.

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