Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Review - "The 6th Michigan Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War: A History and Roster" by Eric Faust

[The 6th Michigan Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War: A History and Roster by Eric R. Faust (McFarland, 2020). Softcover, maps, appendix, roster, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:viii,188/301. ISBN:978-1-4766-8075-0. $49.95]

The state of Michigan supplied some iconic units to the Union Army order of battle. The 24th Michigan was part of the legendary Iron Brigade, and General George A. Custer's Michigan Brigade achieved fame as one of the eastern theater's best cavalry formations. The state even gleamed brightly on the logistical support front, with the 1st Regiment Michigan Volunteer Engineers and Mechanics having an outsized impact on Union victory in the West. However, among all of the state's regiments, it was the comparatively unsung Sixth Michigan that suffered the highest number of war deaths. Their up and down war story is recounted in full in Eric Faust's The 6th Michigan Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War.

Mustered into service in August 1861, the Sixth Michigan joined many other western regiments in being rushed east to defend Washington. There they garrisoned unruly Baltimore in judicious fashion and combed Maryland's Eastern Shore for Confederate activity. In 1862, they sailed to the Gulf with General Benjamin Butler's New Orleans expedition as part of General Thomas Williams's brigade. After the Crescent City fell into Union hands, the Sixth pulled garrison duty there and at the abandoned Louisiana capital. That May, they steamed upriver and participated in the failed first attempt to seize Vicksburg before returning to Baton Rouge. They fought their first battle of the war at Baton Rouge on August 5 and spent the ensuing ten months conducting small-scale raids on both sides of the Mississippi. Though the regiment did not fight in any major battles between the capture of New Orleans and the end of 1862 (with both sides heavily depleted, Baton Rouge was essentially a brigade-sized affair), they lost a startling 300 men that year alone to death (by wound or disease) and medical discharge. In May 1863, the Sixth once again was pushed upriver, this time as part of General Nathaniel Banks's operation against Port Hudson. Though failed by their commanding officers, the company leaders and men in the ranks acquitted themselves well during two major assaults (on May 27 and June 14). After besieged Port Hudson was surrendered in July, the now vastly understrength regiment returned to occupation duties and was converted into a heavy artillery regiment. Their artillery service is not detailed in the text, nor are the many new recruits needed to fill out the ranks included in the roster.

Utilizing a very large collection of primary and secondary sources of all kinds, Faust's richly-detailed narrative of the Sixth's Civil War history is profoundly enhanced by the author's seamless integration of the great number of firsthand accounts obtained through archival research. Faust's meticulous recounting of the regiment's part in the fighting at the Baton Rouge battle (where the Sixth was instrumental in repulsing Confederate attacks on the Union right and center) and Port Hudson siege (the Sixth led the attack of Dow's Brigade across the Slaughter Plantation on May 27 and faced "The Citadel" on June 14) will be highly useful to future scholars writing about those operations. In addition, Faust's detailed coverage of Union raids and skirmishes north of New Orleans over the second half of 1862 and first half of 1863 significantly enhances our knowledge of Lower Gulf guerrilla warfare. Those sections of the book also fully document many little-known actions around Lake Maurepas, Lake Pontchartrain, and the stretch of New Orleans, Jackson, and Great Northern Railroad tracks between Camp Moore and the Crescent City.

To his credit, Faust's warts-and-all treatment discusses at great length the regiment's many internal flaws. Throughout the book, the author cites vast evidence of the regiment's serial insubordination and extraordinary propensity to destroy private buildings and plunder the inhabitants of areas under their control. The regiment started out quite well in Baltimore, where they earned the respect and even admiration of many of its citizens, but it was all downhill from there beginning with the Eastern Shore Expedition. On the whole, the Sixth's field grade officers were either unwilling or unable to curtail this activity, and they continually clashed in grossly insubordinate ways with their brigade commanders. Speaking of the unit's highest ranking officers, the regiment was burdened with a string of drunkards and incompetents throughout its infantry service, with only the unit's original commander uniformly respected by both officers and men. Unfortunately, Colonel Curtenius age and health could not stand up to the rigors of field service. He was often incapacitated and eventually resigned. Typically, units like this (with weak, divisive leadership at the top and chronic indiscipline in the ranks) performed poorly in the field, but Faust amply demonstrates that the regiment fought remarkably well under the circumstances. He ascribes this to the professional-level drill and training received at Fort Wayne in 1861 and the natural leadership abilities of company officers, several of whom excelled at moments of crisis during the absence or incapacity of the regiment's field grade officers.

As part of the final chapter, Faust also delves into the first-generation regimental histories authored by four veterans of the Sixth. Particularly noteworthy among the four major published recollections are their stark differences in content and motivation. For example, self-serving Major Edward Bacon's highly critical history offered only scant praise for the common soldiers that served under him while the rest were highly celebratory in that regard. Too often relegated to scattered footnote coverage or omitted altogether, main-text evaluation of the historiographical influence and value of a unit's veteran-authored histories should really be a standard feature of all modern regimental studies. Finally, in the appendix section can be found a set of statistical tables and a full roster, both of which should prove highly useful to future researchers.

Eric Faust's  The 6th Michigan Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War is a model regimental history. Certainly anyone with a passion for Michigan Civil War units both famous and obscure will want to obtain a copy of this excellent volume, but it is also highly recommended reading for those having a more general interest in 1862-63 Gulf Department campaigns and events.
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[If you want to learn more about the Sixth Michigan's Civil War, click here to read my June 4, 2020 author Q&A session with Eric Faust.]

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