Thursday, December 11, 2008

Hoffman: "'My Brave Mechanics': The First Michigan Engineers and Their Civil War"

["My Brave Mechanics": The First Michigan Engineers and Their Civil War by Mark Hoffman (Wayne State Univ. Press - Great Lakes Books, 2007) Cloth, 6 maps, tables, photos, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 333/498. ISBN:978-08143-3292-4 $44.95]

Engineering and logistics subjects remain small segments of Civil War publishing, a meagerness certainly not commensurate with their wartime importance. The opposing war departments themselves were initially unable to conceive of the critical role of specialized engineering units in the upcoming conflict, with the U.S. army electing to hold off on expanding the ranks of its regular army engineer formations. This left new volunteer units to pick up the slack. The First Michigan Engineers and Mechanics was just such a unit, and Mark Hoffman's recent book My Brave Mechanics is an exemplary regimental history.

Mr. Hoffman's service history of the regiment strikes the right note in terms of scope and level of detail. The First saw initial service in Kentucky, guarding supply lines and having a reserve role during the Battle of Mill Springs. As part of Don Carlos Buell's command, they moved into Tennessee and Mississippi (Corinth Campaign), before falling back into the Bluegrass State to oppose Braxton Bragg's invasion. Often operating in company and battalion sized detachments, the unit also lent its engineering expertise to the 1862-1863 Tennessee campaigns, as well as the Atlanta Campaign and the March to the Sea. The final acts of the war saw the engineers in the Carolinas and back in familiar Tennessee. Providing societal insights as well, the best modern regimental histories also explore unit demographics, and Hoffman's is no exception. The data compiled by the author is sprinkled throughout the text, as well as organized into several tables located in an appendix*.

The author does a very thorough job of explaining the many supporting roles performed by engineering formations within the Union army. These include the construction (as well as destruction) of bridges, railroads, telegraph lines, roads, blockhouses, and field fortifications. I only wish more line drawings were provided to go along with the technical descriptions. While often detailed to the rear areas, combat was not an uncommon experience for the First, as supply and lines of communication were frequently targeted by Confederate raiders and regular forces.

My Brave Mechanics
has all the elements of a first-rate regimental history. The research is exemplary, the bibliography displaying a vast array of unpublished source materials, as well as a great volume and variety of published works consulted. The book's six maps, as large-scale representations of the areas traversed by the engineers during their war service, are adequate. The work's construction and materials quality are top notch. Well presented, deeply researched, and appropriately detailed, My Brave Mechanics is an original and important addition to the literature, a wonderful history of the military contribution of the volunteer engineers to the ultimate victory of the Union army in the western theater.

* - A complete roster is not included, but Hoffman has discovered some individuals missing from the list that is provided in vol. 43 of Record of Service of Michigan Volunteers in the Civil War.

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