Saturday, May 15, 2010

What I look for in regimental histories

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.

11 comments:

  1. Its a tast issue but with the overabundance of books available it takes years to seperate the wheat from the chaffe. I want an entertaining, well written book that uses good sources, and helps me to feel I know something more about the men and their contributions to the war effort. I recommend KEEP THE FLAG TO THE FRONT BY BILL MCFARLAND (the 8th Kansas). All oringinal- a rare find in todays market.James McCorry

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  2. AnonymousMay 16, 2010

    I agree -- I'd like to know something about the men. I recently panned a book about the 2nd USSS because the author told us very little about the officers as men but repeated a lot that has been written about the unit elsewhere.

    Another subject that gets ignored is regimental and army politics. Many regiments were hotbeds of intrigue with ambitious officers jockeying for advancement.

    Fred Ray

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  3. Fred,
    True. It's not a regimental history, but a favorite book of mine that delves into regimental intrigue is the William Black letters (37th Illinois), published as "Duty, Honor, and Country" (Camp Pope, 2006).

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  4. Chris EvansMay 17, 2010

    Fascinating post.

    A regimental history that really gets into the social background of the men and officers is 'Collis' Zouaves: The 114th Pennsylvania Volunteers In The Civil War' by Edward J. Hagerty. I thought it was very good but not quite great.

    Some of my favorite regimental histories are the usual suspects:
    1)'Mother, May You Never See the Sights I Have Seen: The Fifty-Seventh Massachusetts Veteran Volunteers in the Army of the Potomac, 1864-1865' by Warren Wilkinson.
    This has one of the most wonderful regimental rosters I have ever encountered. Great info on the men who made up the regiment.
    2)'The Pride of the Confederate Artillery: The Washington Artillery in the Army of Tennessee' by Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes.
    Lee White is totally correct about this book as it is one of the finest ever written about a Western theater outfit. Outstanding!
    3)'More Terrible than Victory: North Carolina's Bloody Bethel Regiment, 1861-65' by Craig S. Chapman.
    This one is great and has excellent battle accounts of the various brutal engagements of the Overland and Petersburg campaigns.
    4)'My Brave Boys: To War with Colonel Cross and the Fighting Fifth' by Mike Pride and Mark Travis.
    This really show the awfulness of the fighting that the Army of the Potomac took the first two years till Gettysburg and Colonel Cross is such a compelling and fascinating Patton like figure that you can't go wrong.

    Those really are among my favorites. I have others that I feel are very special like Pullen's on the 20th Maine, Miller's on the 20th Mass., Wittenberg's on the 6th Pennsylvania cavalry, and Gragg's look at the 26th North Carolina at Gettysburg.

    Thanks,
    Chris

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  5. One of my favorite regimental histories is one that has received little attention by readers. THE THIRD TEXAS CAVALRY IN THE CIVIL WAR was published in 1993 by the University of Oklahoma Press and was written by Dr. Douglas Hale. Dr. Hale did an excellent job of recounting the exploits of this fine unit that started its campaigning in the trans-Mississippi and then became part of the Army of Tennessee. He used traditional sources but also carefully used census records to develop a composite look at the unit; what makes this book intriguing as well is how it influenced several studies of units that served in Walker's Texas Division. My advisor, Richard Lowe, encouraged me to use Hale's book as a model when I researched and wrote PECULIAR HONOR: A HISTORY OF THE 28TH TEXAS CAVALRY, 1862-1865 (University of Arkansas, 1998). Hale's study also influenced John D. Perkins in his history of DANIEL'S BATTERY: THE 9TH TEXAS FIELD BATTERY (Hill College Press, 1998). Echoes of the Hale book can also be found in SPARTAN BAND: BURNETT'S 13TH TEXAS CAVALRY IN THE CIVIL WAR (University of North Texas Press, 2005), and Hale's social history techniques were employed by Dr. Richard Lowe in WALKER'S TEXAS DIVISION, C. S. A.: GREYHOUNDS OF THE TRANS-MISSISSIPPI (Louisiana State University Press, 2004). I know of no other Civil War division whose social history has been studied so extensively.

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  6. Andrew – thanks for the nod. It is interesting that so many folks rate Federal regimentals more highly than Confederate ones. Why? Is it because the primary source materials (like Compiled Service Records) are so much better for Federal soldiers than for Confederates? By the way, I also like Jenkins’s history of the 15th Kentucky.
    And my second point: having written a regimental on both an ANV and an AofT regiment, I can say that writing about the ANV is a lot easier. The secondary sources, like Rhea’s Overland Campaign series, help greatly. It is much easier to set the scene when you have good secondary sources. Writing about battles like the North Georgia campaign would go much more easily if there were better secondary sources.

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  7. Hi Michael,
    That is curious that the examples that immediately came to my mind as illustrating my thinking on the matter were all Union regiments, esp. since I am generally more interested in Confederate unit histories.

    I agree that units chosen are often the a result of authors taking the path of least resistance. I can imagine that more than a few writers researching histories of Ark. or La. regiments that served west of the Mississippi abandoned their projects from the lack of interesting and readily available source material. On the other hand, take a La. unit from Lee's Tigers or the 9th Arkansas and you're off to the races in comparison.

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  8. Fred Ray mentioned how regimental and army politics are often ignored. We have an interesting and very well written and well researched unit (brigade) history coming out this fall called "The Rashness of That Hour: Politics, Gettysburg, and the Downfall of Confederate Brigadier General Alfred Iverson," by Robert Wynstra. Politics and intrigue crippled this brigade, which helps to explain its dysfunction in Pennsylvania.

    Ted

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  9. AnonymousMay 18, 2010

    Hello Drew

    Always great to hear what SB is up to.

    I have 4 Georgia regimentals on my to read list. The first was written by an author mentioned above, Warren Wilkinson. Steven Woodworth finished the book, Scythe of Fire.

    Angle Valley Press has recently published 2 Georgia regimentals that look very good. Red Clay to Richmond - Fox and Wiregrass to Appomattox, Untold Story of 50th Georgia Infantry - Parrish

    The last one I have is less well known. I do think it has more content on societal influences, Our Connection With Savannah: A History of The 1st Battalion Georgia Sharpshooters - Brown, Russell, Mercer University Press.

    Would be curious if any of your readers have read any of these.

    Regards
    Don Hallstrom

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  10. Chris EvansMay 18, 2010

    'Red Clay to Richmond' is an excellent book. I really enjoyed the photos, maps, appendixes that complemented the text.

    Chris

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  11. Don,
    I've read the first three, but can't recall anything about the first on your list, "Scythe of War". The Parrish book was reviewed here and I interviewed John Fox about "Red Clay to Richmond" when it was released.

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