Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Review - "The Hardest Lot of Men: The Third Minnesota Infantry in the Civil War" by Joseph Fitzharris

[The Hardest Lot of Men: The Third Minnesota Infantry in the Civil War by Joseph C. Fitzharris (University of Oklahoma Press, 2019). Hardcover, 5 maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xiii,234/336. ISBN:978-0-8061-6401-4. $34.95]

Though author and reader interest in Civil War unit studies will probably always be overwhelmingly focused around regiments that served with the most prominent field armies, outliers are published with enough regularity to at least partially satiate those craving something along different lines. A new study that should satisfy that audience as well as engender wider appeal is Joseph Fitzharris's The Hardest Lot of Men: The Third Minnesota Infantry in the Civil War. With seventeen men killed or mortally wounded in combat during the entirety of its 1861-65 service, the Third will never be mistaken for one of Fox's "Fighting 300 Regiments." It is perhaps telling that the Third Minnesota, which did not fight in any major Civil War battle, was honored in the state capital with a unit portrait depicting its triumphant September 1863 entrance into enemy-abandoned Little Rock rather than a veteran-preferred fighting scene from either Wood Lake or Fitzhugh's Woods. Nevertheless, the breadth and nature of their service in the field remains remarkable for being unusually diverse in both geography and military opponents faced. Frequently assigned occupation duties, the Minnesotans fought both conventional Confederate forces and guerrillas over a wide-ranging geographical expanse that included Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas, but they also played a significant role in the Dakota War of 1862 in their home state.

Its organization completed at Fort Snelling, Minnesota in November 1861, the Third Minnesota was, like many other brand new regiments, gradually acclimated to military service through rear area garrison activities. In the West, this often meant guarding railroad lines of communication in Kentucky and Tennessee, and the Third gained valuable field experience during its first winter and spring protecting the Louisville & Nashville Railroad against guerrillas and Confederate raiders. The unit was fortunate in having good officers, who trained the men well, instilled solid discipline, and made sure camps were properly policed to minimize sickness. In addition to gaining a reputation among those higher up the chain of command for being exceptionally well drilled and healthy, the regiment's disciplined restraint (relatively speaking) also impressed local populations increasingly exposed to the depredations of unruly volunteers. Unfortunately, this promising start came to an abrupt end in July 1862.

Assigned to the Murfreesboro garrison in April 1862, the officers and men of the Third Minnesota were caught up in the ignominious July surrender of that important Middle Tennessee post to Nathan Bedford Forrest's Confederate cavalry. Unfortunately for the once proud regiment, the morale-crushing episode would in many ways become the defining moment of the unit's Civil War career. As befits its significance, the Third's time spent in Murfreesboro and the circumstances surrounding its surrender are recounted in great detail in the book. While David Silkenat's recent study Raising the White Flag (2019) fruitfully examines the Civil War's unwritten "rules" of honorable surrender and explains how the military hierarchy, politicians, and the general public reached common accord over what differentiated acceptable mass surrenders from disgraceful ones, that book's discussion of the topic typically did not extend much beyond the event itself. By contrast, Fitzharris's regimental history offers an illuminating longitudinal case study of how the mass surrender of a regiment (even a previously good one like the Third) could have lasting aftereffects, adverse ones that lingered long after exchange and reintegration into the army. Feeling betrayed by their officers, the rank and file soldiers of the Third went into their parole period and beyond no longer trusting their leaders. Cohesion and discipline quickly eroded and, as a consequence, military offenses, absenteeism, and desertion levels dramatically increased. Under new leadership, workable relations between officers and men were eventually restored, but the regiment was never quite the same and the stigma of surrender unfairly remained. While many other similarly disgraced Civil War regiments were able to redeem themselves by performing well in subsequent high-profile battles, the Third, mostly relegated to backwater fronts, was never really accorded that opportunity. Regimental bonds with the home front were similarly strained. Indignant at what they viewed as poor treatment by their fellow Minnesotans, the regiment even declined a mustering out celebration planned by the ladies of St. Paul when they shipped home in 1865.

After the Murfreesboro debacle, the Third's next opportunity to take up arms against an enemy would be in their home state. The War Department's decision to deploy parolees to help quell the 1862 Dakota uprising in Minnesota was controversial; however, Fitzharris notes that legal questions surrounding those actions did not really apply to the Third, as, unbeknownst to them, they were already formally exchanged by the time they reached their home state. In response to attacks on thinly-defended frontier military posts and the mass killing of settlers at the hands of rampaging Dakota, Third Minnesota companies were quickly deployed to forts and towns. They also participated in the Battle of Wood Lake in September as part of the Sibley Expedition. Upon completion of its formal reorganization at Fort Snelling in January 1863, the regiment returned to occupation duties in Kentucky and Tennessee, with most of the action consisting of counterguerrilla operations around Fort Heiman. In June, the Minnesotans were sent down to Vicksburg as reinforcements to bolster and defend General Grant's tightening ring around the Hill City.

After Vicksburg's surrender, the Third was transferred to Helena, Arkansas, where the regiment accompanied General Steele's successful Little Rock expedition. After the capture of the Arkansas capital in September, the regiment remained in the state for the duration of the war, pulling garrison duty in Little Rock, Pine Bluff, DeValls Bluff, and Batesville. These were all key points of occupation, but they also exposed the regiment to the debilitating diseases endemic to the area's swamp-filled topography. It was also in NE Arkansas, during the April 1, 1864 engagement at Fitzhugh's Woods, that the regiment arguably most distinguished itself in battle. The Third was still operating around Jacksonport and DeValls Bluff when the war ended and was finally mustered out of service in September 1865 at Fort Snelling.

All of the wartime activities described above are well documented in the book using a large array of primary and secondary sources, including an extensive collection of archival materials. The standard practice of integrating into the narrative numerous firsthand accounts written by those of all ranks was adopted by the author and well executed.

Complaints are few. Due especially to the obscure nature of much of the regiment's service, the book needed more and better map support. The absence of a roster will concern some readers and others not at all. Perhaps more significantly, some readers will be disappointed in the brevity of the author's treatments of some of the regiment's most significant campaign and battlefield experiences. In particular, the book's glancing coverage of the 1863 Little Rock Campaign and the 1864 fight at Fitzhugh's Woods represents a missed opportunity to further flesh out topics largely neglected in the wider literature. That said, no interested reader should allow those flaws (many might not even consider them serious) to deter them from appreciating what is otherwise a very fine, and frequently dramatically told, regimental history.

A comprehensive chronicle of the Third Minnesota's Civil War, Joseph Fitzharris's The Hardest Lot of Men also offers readers keen insights into how early-war surrender could have lasting negative effects on individual psyches and derail the vitally important development of unit cohesion. Among its other enviable traits, University of Oklahoma Press is developing a bright reputation for publishing non-traditional and otherwise challenging Civil War unit studies, and this is yet another excellent addition to that catalog of work. One looks forward to seeing what they come up with next. Recommended.

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