Friday, April 25, 2014

Cone: "LAST TO JOIN THE FIGHT: The 66th Georgia Infantry"

[Last to Join the Fight: The 66th Georgia Infantry by Daniel Cone (Mercer University Press, 2014). Cloth, map, photos, illustrations, tables, notes, bibliography, index. Pp. 209. ISBN:9780881464757 $29]

As author Daniel Cone notes in his preface to Last to Join the Fight: The 66th Georgia Infantry, Civil War regimental histories range from skeletal summaries only a few dozen pages in length to colossal tomes minutely detailing a unit's formation, roster, camp life, marches, and combat history. Cone's own study lies within the genre's vast middle ground, favoring an examination of the "quality and experience of the regiment's officers, the demographic composition of its ranks, and critiques of the postwar claims of its commander" (pg. 183) over recounting military exploits.

Recruited and organized in the summer of 1863, the 66th Georgia was commanded by Colonel James C. Nisbet, who, having served as a junior officer in the eastern theater, was the most experienced man in the regiment. Cone's research into the background of the officers and NCOs discovered little that might inspire confidence in the unit's subsequent performance, Nesbit having failed in his mission to obtain a cadre of proven fighting men to built his command around. On the other hand, recruit numbers were not a problem. After an initial hiccup, through a combination of volunteering and conscription the 66th rapidly achieved full strength, with enough manpower left over to fill an extra battalion.

According to Cone, the 66th Georgia did little to distinguish itself on the battlefields of the western theater. Like many of its early war compatriots, the Georgians began their service on extended garrison duty before being transferred to a more active front, in this case Chattanooga in the wake of the Confederate victory at Chickamauga. Lightly engaged there, the regiment did contribute to saving an artillery battery during the retreat. During the initial stages of the Atlanta Campaign, the 66th performed rear area duties at Resaca. At both Chattanooga (in repelling Sherman's command) and Resaca (in discouraging McPherson's attack), Nisbet would claim in his 1911 memoir Four Years on the Firing Line a prominent role for his command that Cone found not to be in accordance with the evidence. The first heavy casualties would be suffered at Peachtree Creek and the Battle of Atlanta, the July 22 fight also being where Nisbet was captured and lost for the duration. The 66th would be fortunate to suffer light losses, at least in killed and wounded, during Franklin and Nashville, before ending the war in North Carolina. Cone's descriptions of the specific role of the regiment in these campaigns and battles, especially after Atlanta, are very light on tactical detail. On the other hand, the author was blessed with a solid core of firsthand accounts to base his overall narrative on, from Colonel Nisbet's command perspective to the more ground level outlooks of men like Lieutenant William Ross, Sergeant James Crane, and Privates William Hunt and John Davis.

Where the book really shines is in Cone's demographic study of the 66th as a case study of a late war regiment and how the findings compare with earlier Confederate volunteers. Cone's profile of an older, poorer Georgian recruit certainly contrasts sharply with the young, middle class volunteer of 1861 having more extensive family ties to slave ownership, but the author is really more interested in the contrasting his cohort with the second great wave of southerners entering the ranks, the 1862 group analyzed in Kenneth Noe's Reluctant Rebels (2010). Unlike early-war regiments, very few 66th Georgia companies came from specific counties, with the typical one comprised of recruits from all over the state. The majority of Nisbet's men came from Georgia's Plantation Belt and the average age was 30 (median 33), whereas the average age of the 1862 recruit was 26. Out of 517 men sampled, at least 242 were married, which is slightly less than Noe's 50% figure for later enlisting Confederates and probably having much to do with the high number of recruits (25% of the total) under 20 years of age. Between the two groups, the percentages of men involved in some aspect of farming were similar, 70% for the 66th Georgia to 74% for Noe's sample. When it came to non-farming occupations, up to one-third of later enlisting 1862 recruits supported themselves in another fashion while only 22% of Cone's group claimed so. When it came to wealth, 58% of Noe's Confederate subjects owned no property, while Cone estimates that perhaps three-fourths of 66th Georgia recruits were similarly impoverished. When it came to direct involvement with the institution of slavery (either by owning slaves outright or living in a slaveholding household), perhaps 25% of Cone's sample were thus connected versus 43% for Noe's earlier volunteers. Cone helpfully arranges some of this data into tables, but a pair of potentially useful appendices referenced in the text appear to have been misplaced completely. So, for Cone the "typical" 66th Georgia soldier was either a teenager or a 35-45 year old married farmer (with 4 children) from the Plantation Belt, of very limited means and perhaps owning one slave but more likely having no assets at all, human or otherwise.

A common belief, then and now, pertaining to late war recruits is that they were less patriotic or willing to sacrifice than early volunteers, but Cone discovered no evidence from inside or outside the regiment that 66th Georgia desertion numbers were unusually high. On the other hand, the author was never able to find an adequate explanation for the extreme attrition experienced by the regiment once it entered active service. Suffering from very few combat casualties and disease deaths/discharges up to that point, the regiment was able to field less than 200 bayonets at Peachtree Creek. Undoubtedly, the high percentage of older recruits and teen soldiers likely physically compromised after being raised in want over the prior three years of war had something to do with it.

Last to Join the Fight offers a very illustrative profile of the late-war Confederate recruit. Significant study of the men that followed the eager Boys of '61 -- who they were, why they volunteered, and how committed they were to the cause of the rebellion -- is a recent phenomenon, and Daniel Cone's detailed social profile of the officers and men of the 66th Georgia is an original and important contribution to the discussion.

More CWBA reviews of MUP titles:
* The Battle of Peach Tree Creek: Hood's First Sortie, July 20, 1864
* Going Back the Way They Came: The Phillips Georgia Legion Cavalry Battalion
* I Will Give Them One More Shot: Ramsey's First Regiment Georgia Volunteers
* The Battle of Resaca: Atlanta Campaign, 1864
* Volunteers' Camp and Field Book
* Griswoldville
* Civil War Macon: The History of a Confederate City

1 comment:

  1. Drew - Thank you for the review! The missing appendices are my fault. It was decided in the final proofs that there was not enough time to correct a number of misaligned columns in the appencies resulting from a font and format change from the original manuscript. The appendices were therefore removed, and a reference to my original thesis----where they might be found---was added. Unfortunately, I missed these few references to them in the maint text. Sorry, Dan


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