Thursday, July 19, 2018

Review - "An Aide to Custer: The Civil War Letters of Lt. Edward G. Granger" by Barnard, ed. & Singelyn, comp.

[An Aide to Custer: The Civil War Letters of Lt. Edward G. Granger edited by Sandy Barnard & compiled by Thomas E. Singelyn (University of Oklahoma Press, 2018). Hardcover, 10 maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. 316 pp. ISBN:978-0-8061-6018-4. $39.95]

By the Civil War's second year, nineteen-year-old frustrated college dropout and aspiring lawyer Edward Granger of Grand Rapids, Michigan was considering a position in the ranks of the Union Army. In August 1862, with the help of an uncle who was a high-level Republican Party official in the state, Granger secured a second lieutenant appointment with the 5th Michigan, a then newly-forming volunteer cavalry regiment. With all officer slots initially full, he started out as a supernumerary but would eventually be formally attached to Company C. Granger's forty-four letters home written between 1862 and his battlefield death in 1864 comprise the heart of the excellent new book An Aide to Custer: The Civil War Letters of Lt. Edward G. Granger, edited by Sandy Barnard.

In the Acknowledgments section, Barnard credits Thomas Singelyn with being instrumental in both recognizing the historical merit of Granger's letters and preparing them for publication. Barnard's own value-added contributions as volume editor are substantial. His general introduction recounts Granger's early life, and in it Barnard utilizes well the young man's college journal to offer character insights. Perhaps it was Granger's youthful exuberance and ready willingness to question authority that first brought him to the notice of George Armstrong Custer, his eventual chief. Quite often filling most of the page, Barnard's footnotes can be extraordinarily expansive. Individuals mentioned by Granger only once in passing are frequently treated to biographical sketches several hundred words in length. The editor's notes also do a very fine job of filling in the extended time gaps between letters and providing detailed supporting summaries of the great many important military events recounted in the correspondence. Barnard's lengthy chapter introductions to the letters than follow it are highly informative along similar lines.

Civil War soldiers often used their writing time as an escape from the war itself, but today's readers have the constant entreaties of Granger's family to thank for the long, detailed letters that survived. Though he often complained about how much he truly disliked writing, Granger repaid with interest the desires of his recipients to learn as much as possible about his war experiences and staff duties. Combined with Barnard's top-shelf editing, the letter collection is truly is one of the more remarkable ones of recent memory.

In terms of major operations the months between the conclusion of the Fredericksburg Campaign and the beginning of the Chancellorsville Campaign were relative quiescent, but the northern cavalry in the theater were constantly on the move. Granger's letters during this period intimately describe picket service in both its serious and light moments, but their rather involved descriptions of various mounted expeditions conducted in northern Virginia are useful resources for eastern theater cavalry historians. During this time, the 5th Michigan Cavalry was posted to the Washington capital defenses as part of General Julius Stahel's division.

In mid-1863, Granger's war experiences would dramatically switch from months of mostly picket and patrolling duties to serious fighting. His company served as train guards during the Gettysburg Campaign, so they missed the battles at Hanover and East Cavalry Field, but after Gettysburg Granger was placed at the head of Company C, which was designated General Custer's escort company. Granger's writings don't indicate why Custer appointed him to the general's staff on August 20, but the young man's escort duties would have made him visible and he must have impressed Custer in some way.

In typically observant fashion, Granger goes on to recount his experiences of the summer and fall campaigning in Virginia. His highly descriptive account of his first significant fighting in the field (during the Second Battle of Brandy Station) is demonstrative of the types of abilities (particularly his powers of observation, memory, and attention to detail) that were desirable staff officer traits. His letters chronicling the fighting at Buckland Mills, Culpeper, and Kelly's Ford are similarly useful eyewitness accounts of the action as well as Custer's presence and command performance during those events.

From there, Granger's letters move on to highlight the operations of the Michigan Brigade during the 1864 Overland Campaign, in particular the fighting at the Wilderness, Yellow Tavern, Salem Church, Haw's Shop, Bethesda Church, Cold Harbor, and Trevilian Station. Presentation of the last is particularly vivid. His last letter was written on July 17, 1864. The book's epilogue helpfully fills in the gap between Granger's July letter and his death at the Battle of Crooked Run just north of Front Royal in the Shenandoah Valley. The exact circumstances surrounding the young man's demise remain murky. Apparently Granger was dispatched from headquarters with orders, and his horse, which was an unfamiliar mount, became unmanageable and took Granger into enemy lines, where he was shot and killed. His body was never recovered.

The volume is impressively enhanced with maps and photographs. Among them are presumably all known images of Granger, and the cartography is generally superior to that typically found in published Civil War correspondence. The map depictions of Trevilian Station and Crooked Run are particularly fine.

Editing the Granger letters for publication is a very worthwhile project on multiple levels. In addition to sensitively preserving the historical memory of Lt. Granger's tragically brief but meritorious life, the book offers readers a remarkable new look inside the famed Michigan Brigade. While certainly not coming from a disinterested source (Granger was greatly taken with Custer), the correspondence offers very valuable firsthand insights into the leadership, command style, and battlefield behavior of Custer himself. The general's famously playful personality also emerges from Granger's descriptions of his many personal interactions with his chief. Serious students of eastern theater Union cavalry operations, especially for the period between the conclusions of the Fredericksburg and Overland campaigns, will certainly want to add a copy of this book to their personal libraries.

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