Recently on his blog, Michael Hardy asked for reader opinions about favorite regimental histories and what makes a good one. I don't know that I have a personal favorite, but I know what draws me to a particular unit history. Lee White commented "I want to know who the men were, where they came from, what they did before, during and after the war. I see each regiment as an armed representative of their community or town and each has its own unique story", and I think that's a good broad outline of the essentials, but I've become pretty jaded about the lack of ambition found in the general run of unit histories and biographies (the two categories of Civil War books that I believe carry the worst ratio of good to bad).
The typical regimental history "formula" involves a short organizational summary followed by chapters for each major campaign and battle the unit was involved in and a wrap-up, perhaps summarizing the post-war lives and careers of some of the major players. Most also include a roster of a varying degree of depth, which unfortunately is often the only section of the book with any lasting value for researchers. No matter what the unit's state of origin, North or South, may be, authors disproportionately tend to chose units that served primarily in the east, either with the Army of the Potomac or the ANV, inviting the reader to slog through yet another tiresome rundown of wartime events beginning with First Bull Run or the Peninsula and ending in 1864 enlistment expiration or at Appomattox. None of this is intrinsically worthless, but the majority of these narratives cast little if any new light on the regiment's unique role in any of the engagements, and, even worse, rarely go into enough detail to even distinguish the unit's positions, movements, and performance from any of the others in the same brigade or sometimes division. Also, given the explosion of documents and primary source materials of all types made available over the past few decades, there is little excuse not to at least attempt a rudimentary social history and some statistical analysis of the unit's manpower makeup. No one expects the kind of devotion that Mark Dunkelman has lavished upon his 154th New York, but at least a token effort beyond providing cursory officer sketches should be required before the author launches into the battles.
What really catches my eye is some kind of value-added factor about the unit or its service that makes its story extraordinary or unusual. One social historical example is Kirk Jenkins' history of the 15th Kentucky and how its diverse collection of officers and men, some of whom were slaveholders, found it to be in their best interest, and consistent with their sense of honor, to remain with and fight for the Union. By examining the personnel composition of a small unit in detail and showcasing its conflicts within and without, the book usefully informs the reader about Kentucky politics, institutions, and society as a whole. On the military side, I was impressed with Michael Martin's treatment of the 4th Wisconsin, a unit that criss-crossed the lower reaches of the Gulf states and was involved in several operations not detailed elsewhere in the literature. Donald Wickman's history of the 9th Vermont did much the same for the obscure Battle of Newport Barracks. I guess my overarching concern is that regimental histories in particular seem to have adopted a stagnant, self-limiting structure. What do you think? Maybe I am overstating the case, and it's just more of a taste issue.