Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Review of Scythes, ed. - "THIS WILL MAKE A MAN OF ME: The Life and Letters of a Teenage Officer in the Civil War"

[This Will Make a Man of Me: The Life and Letters of a Teenage Officer in the Civil War edited by James Scythes (Lehigh University Press, 2016). Hardcover, 4 maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. 195 pp. ISBN:978-1-61146-218-0. $75]

Benjamin Gould's Investigations in the Military and Anthropological Statistics of American Soldiers (1869) found that only five of the 37,183 Union Army officers in its study sample were seventeen years of age. This makes 17-year-old Lieutenant Thomas James Howell of the 3rd New Jersey Volunteer Infantry Regiment a rarity, indeed. His series of wartime letters home are the chief attraction of James Scythes's This Will Make a Man of Me, which also provides an informative biographical treatment of its youthful subject.

Sixty-five of Howell's letters survive, either in original form (31) or as transcriptions (34), and the book organizes them into two parts. Part I begins with civilian Howell's trip to the Virginia front in January 1862 in order to secure a freshly vacated second lieutenant post in the 3rd New Jersey and ends with the unit's embarkation to the Virginia Peninsula. Part II spans April 15-June 26, 1862, when Howell and the 3rd joined the Army of the Potomac for the drive on Richmond. Unfortunately for the army and for Howell himself, things did not go according to plan. On June 27, Howell was killed during the closing moments of the Battle of Gaines's Mill, and by the end of the Seven Days the Confederate army had earned a hard won campaign victory.

The 3rd NJ (Kearny's Brigade, Franklin's Division) did not directly participate in the main fighting for any of the major Peninsula battles prior to Gaines's Mill, so Howell's letters are not filled with detailed accounts from the firing line. For what he did see, however, Howell was a regular and highly observant correspondent. During his first months of duty, he penned detailed descriptions of the outpost war in northern Virginia. After arriving on the  Peninsula, he wrote long letters to his family chronicling what he witnessed from his reserve position at the Battle of Eltham's Landing and from his rear post behind the far right flank of the Union line south of the Chickahominy River during the early stages of the Seven Days.

Howell's lengthy letters home are rich in details about camp life and company officer's duties. He wrote frequently about drilling, dress parades, and target practice, while also relating to his family, among other things, what it was like to be officer of the guard and officer of the day. The tone and content of the letters really show Howell to be mature beyond his years. Forced to learn on the run, he seems to have adjusted to his weighty responsibilities quickly and well. All the more impressive is the fact that his company's captain and ranking lieutenant were absent most of the time, leaving junior officer Howell in charge of the company.

As Scythes notes, it's unfortunate for us that no diaries or letters written by the privates and non-coms that served under Howell survive, as they might have provided insights into how the older men viewed their uncommonly youthful lieutenant. Howell himself relates that he felt he was well liked by his men and his letters note no significant problems with insubordination. Perhaps he was aided by his greater than average size (he was six feet tall). Of course, rare was the Civil War regiment with no petty jealousies and hatreds shared among the officers, and Howell frequently clashed with the 3rd NJ's Lieutenant Colonel Brown (who apparently drank heavily). Even Howell's best officer friend in the company ended up colluding against him with Brown, a disheartening situation that undoubtedly contributed mightily to Howell's generally negative opinion of his fellow volunteer officers.

For obvious reasons, Howell's letters home abruptly end on June 26. Using a number of sources, including eyewitness accounts of Howell's actions during the Battle of Gaines's Mill and of his death later that day, Scythes is able to admirably reconstruct in his book's concluding chapter the final moments of the teenage lieutenant's life. By all accounts, Howell coolly kept his company well in hand during the intense fighting around Boatswain's Creek and was able to quickly reform the men during the Union retreat to the Chickahominy bridges. It was at this time during the late afternoon that Howell was struck and killed by a stray round shot.

Scythes's editing contributes significantly to the value of the book. In researching his extensive biographical and contextual narratives, he consulted a broad range of sources (including manuscript collections, government documents and reports, books, periodicals, and newspapers). Endnotes are plentiful and, in addition to standard source identification, provide useful information on persons, places, and events mentioned in the letters.

Given that Howell's battlefield experiences were primarily behind the lines, and he was killed during his first major clash of arms (thus depriving us of any personal record of those moments), it would be difficult to argue that the volume ranks high among the collection of firsthand military accounts of the Peninsula Campaign. Nevertheless, as mentioned above, there are other points of interest that make the volume worthwhile. The letters, which are numerous, highly descriptive, and remarkably complete, offer readers a singular record of a teenage company officer's experiences and perceptions of the early stages of one the war's greatest campaigns. Through the fine efforts of historian James Scythes, This Will Make a Man of Me treats a tragically brief life story with the gravity and historical appreciation that its uniqueness deserves.

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