Saturday, September 20, 2014

Ent: "THE PENNSYLVANIA RESERVES IN THE CIVIL WAR: A Comprehensive History"

[The Pennsylvania Reserves in the Civil War: A Comprehensive History By Uzal W. Ent (McFarland 800-253-2187, 2014). Softcover, maps, tables, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN:978-0-7864-4872-2 Pp. 411 $75]

With all its members hailing from the Keystone State, the Pennsylvania Reserves were an unusual Union army division. Formed in 1861 from the rush of men left over when the state vastly exceeded its federally mandated enlistment quota, the Reserves fought in all the major eastern theater battles with the Army of the Potomac before being mustered out in mid-1864. During this time, they forged an enviable combat reputation during the Seven Days, 2nd Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and Overland campaigns.

When it comes to the division’s organizational and battle history, the subtitle of Uzal Ent’s The Pennsylvania Reserves in the Civil War: A Comprehensive History is no immodest boast. The chapter describing the formation and training of the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps is relatively brief. It's in the campaign and battle history of the unit, which comprises the bulk of the work, where the level of detail is really unprecedented. Ent’s study is ostensibly division history, but his narrative also describes the action from the perspectives of the formation’s compositional regiments and batteries. The occasional side trips are equally compelling. In addition to penning a nice capsule history of the operations of the 1st Pennsylvania Reserve Cavalry Regiment between the summers of 1863 and 1864, the author also delves into operations outside those of the Army of the Potomac, specifically the roles of the 3rd and 4th Reserves in the 1864 West Virginia campaign.

Of course, the creation of such a minutely detailed narrative requires a mountain of research and Ent’s bibliography offers the expected depth and range of source materials in the form of government documents, books, pamphlets, newspapers, and both published and unpublished diaries, letters, and memoirs. The endnotes are expansive, with source as well as explanatory notations.

A range of supplemental features greatly enrich the text and increase its value as a research tool. In addition to photographs of many of the principal officers associated with the Reserves, a wealth of maps also grace the book’s pages. These are previously published drawings, rather than originals commissioned for this book, but most are quite good. Ent also provides order of battle and casualty tables for the featured campaigns and battles. Detailed biographical sketches of the colonels and generals that led the Reserves can be found in one appendix while another collects 1861 regimental organizational charts. The final appendix reproduces the texts of several public speeches made in the Reserves’ honor when the men returned home from the front in 1864.

The author didn't include rosters or any systematic study of soldier demographics, but their absence is understandable given the consuming scale of such a task.  Such things are difficult enough for a single regiment, let alone an entire division.  Ent does however integrate into his narrative the experiences, told in their own words, of a host of Pennsylvania Reserves officers and enlisted men (over 150 by the author’s count). The study’s essence may be traditional top-down battle history, but the thoughts and views of men in the ranks are not neglected.

While regimental and brigade histories of Civil War units are very common, division histories are exceedingly rare. Why this is so is open to debate, but Uzal Ent’s The Pennsylvania Reserves in the Civil War, for all the reasons outlined above, makes a powerful argument for their usefulness. It is highly recommended reading for students of the Civil War’s eastern theater and those with a special interest in the contributions and sacrifices of Pennsylvania’s sons to the Union cause.

[edited version of review previously published in On Point magazine]

4 comments:

  1. Would you say, then, that Ent's book is better than the usual run of poorly edited McFarland titles?

    One reason for the lack of division histories may be that their composition usually changed throughout their service. Walker's Texas Division and the PA Reserves were rare both in being from one state and staying mostly unchanged. This was even rare at the brigade level. I'll bet writing a history of 10-12,000 men is also pretty daunting.

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    1. Will,
      I wouldn't go that far. In my experience (and I see a ton of McF titles every year), for every truly messy title there's one or more that any publisher would be proud to release. I agree that is it a very valid question as to why, given the premium price, why they can't be more consistent. As to your query about this particular one, if memory serves (I read and wrote the review over 6 mos. ago) it is one of the better ones in terms of manuscript presentation.

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  2. I believe I forgot to sign my earlier comment. I really value your reviews, especially of unit histories, as these are valuable to my research on recruitment practices.
    Will Hickox

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    1. I'm glad you don't visit the site primarily for biography! I'm sure that gets the vote for most neglected category.

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