Thursday, April 23, 2009

Williams: "Chicago's Battery Boys: The Chicago Mercantile Battery in the Civil War's Western Theater"

[Chicago's Battery Boys: The Chicago Mercantile Battery in the Civil War's Western Theater by Richard Brady Williams (Savas Beatie, 2008 revised edition). Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, appendices, index. Pages main/total: 424/606 ISBN:9781932714388 $22.95]

The Chicago Board of Trade battery may be the more celebrated of the two, but the Mercantile Battery now has a modern unit history of enviable quality and depth -- Richard Brady's Williams's Chicago's Battery Boys. With the hardcover first edition receiving just praise (and presumably favorable sales) after its 2005 release, 2008 saw the publication of the revised paperback edition to be reviewed here.

Entering U.S. service in August 1862, the Chicago Mercantile Battery went on to fight in a number of western and Trans-Mississippi theater campaigns. Their first battle was at Chickasaw Bayou, but Arkansas Post marked their first success. Next came the Vicksburg Campaign, where the May 22nd, 1863 attack on the 2nd Texas Lunette brought some renown to the unit, and to six members of the battery the Medal of Honor. The Mercantile Battery was then transferred to the Department of the Gulf, where it participated in the Rio Grande Expedition, the Texas Overland Expedition, and the 1864 Red River Campaign. It was during the Battle of Mansfield that the battery was overrun, losing all its guns and many of its men. After a quiescent period at Camp Parapet, New Orleans, the unit was finally reorganized as horse artillery, to accompany cavalry raiders in the region until the end of the war.

Williams's unit history is part author narrative, part source compilation (more on the latter below). Appropriately, the Mercantile Battery's most desperate fight (Mansfield, Louisiana) is also the battle treated with the greatest depth. The text is supported by a number of original and archival maps, as well as many photographs [the revised paperback edition has a new photo appendix, containing several dozen CDVs discovered since the original publication]. The research is solid, and the often extensive explanatory notes provide much added value. In addition to the photo gallery, two additional appendices (a Vicksburg walking tour and a battery roster) grace the book's pages.

The author made effective use of many manuscript collections, but the William L. Brown letters (mostly to the soldier's father) were integral to the telling of the Mercantile Battery's story. Williams transcribed these letters in their entirety, arranging them in groups located at the end of chapters. Photographic images of quartermaster Brown's many maps and drawings accompany the letters. These are laden with information useful to researchers and historians.

Chicago's Battery Boys is one of the best artillery unit histories from either side in the modern literature, a significant contribution to our knowledge of the western and Trans-Mississippi campaigns and a fine tribute to the officers and men of the Chicago Mercantile Battery. Highly recommended.

[Thanks to T.L. at Casemate]

[Note: Mr. Williams has a nice author website titled Civil War Legacy.]


  1. Hi Drew,

    Thanks for the review. Those interested in this book and the Chicago Mercantile Battery may want to read the interview with author Rick Williams here

    Thanks again.


  2. Joel Manuel, Baton Rouge, LAApril 23, 2009 at 1:32 PM

    I'm reading this now in preparation for a trip to Vicksburg. At first I was startled by the letters/diary entries woven into the narrative, but the technique works surprisingly well.

  3. Good review Drew. I really enjoyed this book and wish more unit histories were like it (especially Western Theater).

  4. This is a very good review. Having read the book myself, I definitely concur. My hope is that books like this will inspire more work about the federal artillery in the western campaigns. There's still virtually nothing of modern vintage.

  5. Guys,
    Artillery is one of my favorite study subjects as well, but I get the impression that most presses shy away from the mega unit histories, even more so for support units like artillery. They'll either find a rare home with a publisher like S-B or be self-published.

    Speaking of unusual, there's a Sumter Artillery Battalion history being published later in the year.

  6. Drew,
    LSU did release in 1997 'Pride of the Confederate Artillery : The Washington Artillery in the Army of Tennessee by Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes'. I thought it was excellent and wish more were published like it.


Please SIGN YOUR NAME. Otherwise, your comment submission may be rejected, at my discretion. Also, outside promotions are not allowed in the comments section.