Monday, April 6, 2009

Swan: "Chicago's Irish Legion: The 90th Illinois Volunteers in the Civil War"

[Chicago's Irish Legion: The 90th Illinois Volunteers in the Civil War by James B. Swan (Southern Illinois University Press, 2009). Cloth, 17 maps, photos, illustrations, notes, roster, appendices, index. Pages main/total:253/319. ISBN: 978-0-8093-2890-1 $32.95]

Formed under the unusual pre-condition that Chicago's Father Denis Dunne would select the field grade officers, the 90th Illinois ("Irish Legion") had to overcome more than a few problems before it took to the field. The summer of 1862's slowed recruiting drives, along with political squabbles over the keeping of Governor Yates's promise to Dunne and a massive desertion problem, ensured a rocky start to the unit's U.S. army service. Fortunately for the men of the 90th, a fine officer, Timothy J. O'Meara, was finally appointed to command the regiment.

The Irishmen saw their first action at Coldwater Station during U.S. Grant's 1862 overland advance through northern Mississippi toward Vicksburg. They spent the early part of 1863 guarding railroads before being ordered to participate in the Vicksburg siege. After assisting in the recapture of Jackson after the Hill City's fall, the regiment remained in the region before marching to the relief of Chattanooga (and later Knoxville). Next for the Legion came the Atlanta Campaign and the March to the Sea. As part of Hazen's division, The 90th stormed Ft. McAllister, the guardian of Savannah. Its active service concluded with the Carolinas campaign and the Grand Review in Washington. Overall, the unit did more hard marching than bloody fighting during the war, but the regiment did suffer heavy casualties at Chattanooga in 1863 and during the series of defensive battles around Atlanta the following year.

In several instances, James B. Swan's Chicago's Irish Legion: The 90th Illinois Volunteers in the Civil War makes significant original contributions to the battle and campaign literature. The author's account of the skirmish at Coldwater Station, Mississippi (a few miles north of Holly Springs, and fought in the wake of General Van Dorn's capture of Grant's supply depot there) is a very detailed rendering of events. The book's painstaking reconstruction of the 90th's participation in the Battle of Chattanooga comprises another terrific tactical vignette of value to readers. Attached to Sherman's command, the regiment's attack on the Confederate right flank cost the unit its highest casualties of the war, and eviscerated its command structure (to include the mortal wounding of Col. O'Meara). A fine recital of the Legion's crossing of the Ogeechee River and assault on Ft. McAllister at the conclusion of Sherman's March to the Sea is also provided.

As revealed by his notes and bibliography, Swan's research appears satisfactory. He uncovered a number of manuscript collections that aided his narrative immeasurably throughout. His appendices include a monthly muster roll (between February 1863 and war's end) and a regimental roster.

What the book's cartography lacks in artistry it more than makes up for in functionality. The lion's share of the 17 maps trace the operational movements of the regiment. Significant towns and terrain features mentioned in the text were diligently placed on the maps and labeled, a useful but all too sadly neglected feature of most unit histories. Here, the task was performed quite well. The material attributes of the study are similarly satisfying. Full cloth binding (fittingly green in this case) is always welcome.

In content and presentation, Swan's Chicago's Irish Legion is a fine regimental history of the 90th Illinois, and a notable contribution to the military and ethnic Civil War literature.

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