Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Booknotes: The Bonds of War

New Arrival:
The Bonds of War: A Story of Immigrants and Esprit de Corps in Company C, 96th Illinois Volunteer Infantry by Diana L. Dretske (SIU Press, 2021).

The works of countless Civil War researchers and writers have been directly inspired by encounters with historical artifacts. In museum curator Diana Dretske's case, that inspiration came in the form of an archival photograph of five Union soldiers who enlisted in a local company. From the description: "When curator Diana L. Dretske discovered that the five long-gone Union soldiers in a treasured photograph in the Bess Bower Dunn Museum were not fully identified, it compelled her into a project of recovery and reinterpretation." Her resulting book, The Bonds of War: A Story of Immigrants and Esprit de Corps in Company C, 96th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, employs a "microhistorical approach" that "(u)tilizes an impressive array of local and national archives, as well as private papers" to construct a manuscript that is both collective biography and unit history.

The book provides biographical sketches of each soldier, all of whom were U.K. immigrants who settled in Illinois and joined the same local infantry company raised in the northeastern part of the state. From the description: "This book, the most intensive examination of the 96th Illinois Volunteer Infantry since the regiment’s history was published in 1887 centers on immigrants from the British Isles who wished to be citizens of a country at war with itself. Far removed from their native homelands, they found new promise in rural Illinois. These men, neighbors along the quiet Stateline Road in Lake County, decide to join the fighting at its most dangerous hour. The bonds of war become then the bonds of their new national identity."

The story of the five soldiers at the center of the book is also extended outward to document the Civil War service of their company and regiment. The 96th was mustered into the Union Army (yes, I will keep calling it that) in early September 1862 and was immediately shipped to Kentucky to confront the Confederate invasion of that state. After assorted garrison duties, the regiment participated in a string of important western campaigns beginning with Tullahoma and progressing through Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Atlanta, and Franklin-Nashville. All of those experiences are described in the book (including time spent by one or more in Andersonville prison).

The study expands into the postwar years, addressing the enduring bonds between soldiers of Company C and the difficulties met by many (especially those seeking disability and pension assistance) during the process of reintegration into civilian society. A roster of Company C at time of enlistment is included as an appendix.

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