Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Kohl: "THE PRAIRIE BOYS GO TO WAR: The Fifth Illinois Cavalry, 1861-1865"

[The Prairie Boys Go to War: The Fifth Illinois Cavalry, 1861-1865 by Rhonda M. Kohl (Southern Illinois University Press, 2013). Hardcover, maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:260/317. ISBN:9780809332038 $39.95]

With no spotlight performances during any major western battle or famous raid, the 5th Illinois Cavalry's labors in obscurity over vast areas of Union occupied Arkansas and Mississippi were nonetheless essential in their own way. Additionally, western cavalry regimental histories with keen military and cultural insights remain rare, making Rhonda Kohl's The Prairie Boys Go to War: The Fifth Illinois Cavalry, 1861-1865 well worthy of attention.

On the face of it, many readers will be unimpressed with the 5th's military pedigree, but students of counter-guerrilla operations in the Trans-Mississippi and post-Vicksburg Campaign scouting and raiding in Mississippi will be treated to impressive accounts of events only lightly touched upon in the existing literature. Organized in August 1861, the "prairie boys" spent the balance of the year training in their home state. February 1862 saw them enter neighboring Missouri, where they did pacification duty in the extreme SE part of the state and eventually joined the Union invasion of NE Arkansas. It was during this time that the 5th received their first taste of guerrilla warfare. From July through October, sickly Helena, Arkansas was the regiment's home. Here, clashes with both regular and irregular Confederate opponents frequently occurred. The next month, the Illinoisans crossed the Mississippi River and participated in the Grenada Expedition, a mounted raid launched in conjunction with U.S. Grant's overland approach on Vicksburg. The men returned to Helena but became a permanent part of Grant's army during the final 1863 campaign to capture the Hill City, operating primarily in the Mechanicsburg Corridor, where they screened the rear of the besieging Union army and kept an eye out to the east for Joseph Johnston's Confederate relief army. After Vicksburg's fall, the regiment took part in the recapture of Jackson and a raid to the north that promised much but delivered little. The author goes into some detail reciting the cavalry's role in the ensuing Meridian Expedition, where the 5th fought at Jackson, Hillsborough, and Meridian itself. The unit reorganized with enough reenlistments to qualify for veteran status, but, with the exception of Osband's Raid, the rest of the war was spent in mostly uneventful occupation duty. Overall, Kohl does an excellent job of documenting these more obscure military happenings in Arkansas and Mississippi, many of the latter having received little attention in the decades since park service historian Ed Bearss first covered them in print.

But there is more to The Prairie Boys Go to War than tales of military exploits. Given the 5th regiment's geographical area of operation, bad water and deadly mosquito-borne diseases were constant companions. With Helena, Arkansas's reputation as one of the most pestilential postings in all of the South, it is no surprise the Illinoisans's overall health declined greatly during their extended tour there. Oddly enough, the regiment suffered far more disease deaths around Vicksburg in 1864, than Helena in 1862, although there is little doubt that many of the Mississippi dead had their constitutions previously comprised in Arkansas.

Culture at the command level and in the ranks, and it's effects on the cohesion and performance of the regiment, is one of the best developed themes of the book. Companies were drawn from all over Illinois, with a large contingent hailing from the conservative Democratic bastion of southern counties known as "Egypt". Ideological tensions were only enhanced when the field grade officer appointments went predominantly Republican. According to Kohl, the volatile situation was worsened by the fact that the officers were collectively a poor lot with a high rate of turnover. In the Civil War, regiments situated thus often performed unevenly on the battlefield and exhibited discipline problems such as widespread plundering, an apt description of the 5th's reputation. What did unite the men, however, was their zeal for the Union. While many did not approve of the Emancipation Proclamation, men of all political stripes had little patience for those on the home front that actively opposed the war.

The book's bibliography is certainly consistent with the work of a dedicated scholar with ten years of research and published articles dealing with the 5th Illinois behind her. Within the volume are a good number of maps conveying useful detail, but the choice to make them schematic rather than accurate renderings to scale was a bit disappointing. Also, more drawings tracing the paths of some of the lesser known raids that were covered in the text would have been very helpful. It should also be mentioned that the book is not a roster history, and the fact that the study ends abruptly is not a problem as the author plans another volume covering the post-war experiences of the veterans.

The Prairie Boys Go to War does in excellent fashion what so many Civil War regimental histories continue to do poorly, namely strike a satisfactory balance between a detailed military record of a unit's service and a critical exploration of the societal values brought to it by those that fill its ranks. In addition to pleasing demanding students in those two areas, the book's contributions to Civil War medical history, occupation studies, and guerrilla warfare are also significant. Add to that the overall scarcity of modern treatments of western cavalry units serving in the Union army, and we really have something of award worthy mention in Rhonda Kohl's study.

[ed. 4/4: the roster is hosted by the publisher's website and available for download as a .pdf]

More CWBA reviews of SIUP titles:
* The Chattanooga Campaign
* Mending Broken Soldiers: The Union and Confederate Programs to Supply Artificial Limbs
* An Illustrated Guide to Virginia's Confederate Monuments
* The Notorious "Bull" Nelson: Murdered Civil War General
* The Chickamauga Campaign
* Chicago's Irish Legion: The 90th Illinois Volunteers in the Civil War
* The Shiloh Campaign


  1. The decision not to include a roster in the print edition was apparently an economic decision made by the press. A PDF file of a complete roster is available at the SIU page for the book under "supplementary material.",5840.aspx

    1. Thanks for the note. I might have missed it, but I didn't recall any mention of a roster supplement in the book itself (which can cause future problems of its own with dead links, etc. when the volume eventually hits the backlist). It's pretty easy to miss on the webpage, too.

  2. Andrew: I actually created about 20 maps for the book, but the press only allowed 10. I, too, hate not having a visual reference when reading about an expedition. I still have those maps, and can email them to people who are interested. They include: Doniphan, 1862 Missouri, 22 Oct 1862 McAlpine ambush, 1863 Grenada, Jackson, the Jan 1865 expedition into Louisiana, and 1865 Memphis expeditions. Please email me at: for copies of the maps.

    Thank you for the very generous reveiw. There will be two other books about the Fifth: the postwar lives of the soldiers, and a homefront examination of the wives and families experiences. Rhonda Kohl

  3. Jno B. Davis a Saddler was my great great grandather married to my great great grandmother Hattie B.Case of DeKalb, Ill. Jan 9, 1958. My great great grandmother Harriet, mother of my great grandmother Flora G. Davis, born in 1859, remarried in 1864. I cant find the death or place of death of my great great grandfather, Jno. B. Davis, the Saddler in the 5th Illinois Calvary, when,where or how he died.

    1. The author might be able to help you. See the email contact info in the comment above yours.


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