Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Review - "Lee's Body Guards: The 39th Battalion Virginia Cavalry" by Michael Hardy

[Lee's Body Guards: The 39th Battalion Virginia Cavalry by Michael C. Hardy (Arcadia Publishing and The History Press). Softcover, photos, illustrations, roster, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:93/190. ISBN:978-1-4671-4150-5. $21.99]

Over the first eighteen months of the war in the East (and elsewhere), it was common practice in the Confederate Army to detach companies from volunteer cavalry units for use as high command headquarters guards and escorts. In astute recognition that this routine measure was a misuse of good cavalry and unduly diminished the strength and effectiveness of the parent regiments, the Army of Northern Virginia in late 1862 began to recruit and organize new companies specifically to perform the necessary duties of headquarters couriers, guides, and scouts. Eventually, a full battalion of four companies (plus part of another) was formed, and its leadership, rank and file, organization, and service history are informatively discussed in Michael Hardy's succinct new study Lee's Body Guards: The 39th Battalion Virginia Cavalry.

Though organizationally separate from the personal staffs of the army and corps commanders, the four companies that made up the 39th Battalion nevertheless performed vital support roles to those staffs. While nicknames like "Lee's Body Guard" and "Ewell's Bodyguard" suggested very specific assignments, it is clear from Hardy's research that officers and men from the various companies were quite frequently detached in the service of other generals (or for special missions) on an as needed basis. In addition to their work behind the scenes as couriers, guides, and scouts, men of the battalion also did more mundane chores such as clerking, guarding headquarters, and driving HQ wagons. On campaign they also escorted enemy prisoners to the rear and were frequently assigned to gather stragglers for forwarding to the front.

In addition to highlighting the personal activities and backgrounds of numerous individual officers and troopers, Hardy describes at length the growth of the unit from a single company to a full battalion. As one might expect, headquarters attachment appealed to many prospective recruits, especially when compared with the alternative of being conscripted into a line regiment. Even so, the duties they performed could be dangerous, and extensive work in the field produced numerous casualties. As Hardy shows, the on-call nature of the battalion's service could also be very physically taxing, with the men additionally subjected to the same camp diseases as any other soldier. The continuous fighting that characterized the 1864-65 campaigns also meant that the men of the battalion were in the saddle far more often and for longer periods than ever before. In addition to the issue of the rider's mental and physical exhaustion, maintaining mounts in that environment became a major problem and expense.

A factor contributing to the relative brevity of Hardy's narrative is the fact that few members of the battalion left behind extensive written accounts of their experiences. Nevertheless, the author was able to make fine use of the handful that do exist. Covering the Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Wilderness/Spotsylvania, and Appomattox campaigns and battles, this informative collection of firsthand perspectives substantially informs the study. Even if they didn't write much about what was often unglamorous service, most of the men remained proud of their roles as personal protectors of the army's ranking generals and facilitators of the military management of Lee's famous army.

Supplementing the service narrative is a detailed roster that the author assembled from a combination of compiled service records, local newspapers, and various genealogy websites. Hardy also acknowledges the prior research efforts of Robert Driver and Kevin Ruffner in this area. Though the full range of information is not available for every veteran, the book's roster data can include name, rank, company, date of birth and death, enlistment date and place, interment site, transfer notification(s), information regarding POW/AWOL/desertion status, and parole date/place.

Michael Hardy's Lee's Body Guards represents a unique contribution to the small-unit historiography of the Army of Northern Virginia. Formations, units, and individuals who performed important tasks behind the scenes and in support of their compatriots on the fighting line have received a bit more attention of late, and this is a valuable history of a small group of officers and men who performed vital services not routinely trumpeted in the history books.

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