Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Booknotes: Worthy of a Higher Rank

New Arrival:
Worthy of a Higher Rank: The 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign Journal of Colonel Joseph Thoburn, Commander, First Infantry Division, Army of West Virginia by Scott C. Patchan (35th Star Pub, 2021).

Though far outnumbered in Civil War armies by lawyers turned volunteer colonels and generals, there were enough fighting physicians of similarly high rank to be noticeable, and one of the best was West Virginia's (by way of Ireland, Canada, and Ohio) Colonel Joseph Thoburn. "Based primarily on his 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign journal, this biographical work [Worthy of a Higher Rank: The 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign Journal of Colonel Joseph Thoburn, Commander, First Infantry Division, Army of West Virginia] provides significant insight on this period of the Civil War, as well as background on an important field commander of the Union Army who was a physician from Wheeling, West Virginia."

During the 1864-65 campaigns, casualties reached such levels in all ranks that many officers were thrust into positions several grades above their actual rank. Thoburn was certainly one of those officers, eventually leading a division while still only a colonel. His diary covers many key battles and operations of the 1864 Shenandoah campaigns, including New Market, Piedmont, and General David Hunter's Lynchburg raid while serving as a brigade commander, and, after being appointed a division commander, the battles of Cool Spring and Second Kernstown. The diary ends on August 7 just after the arrival of General Philip Sheridan to take command of the Army of the Shenandoah.

Himself the author of several essential works related to the Valley campaigns, Scott Patchan assumes the editing role here with gusto. In addition to contributing a general introduction to the diary, Patchan's writing frames each of the book's six chapters with essential context, all of which is annotated. He's also stocked the pages with excellent maps, numerous historical photographs, a set of modern battlefield viewsheds, and numerous other illustrations.

A large section of the book is devoted to addressing the gap between August 7 and Thoburn's mortal wounding at Cedar Creek on October 19. Patchan reproduces two letters from Thoburn to his wife that cover events from Sheridan's Valley Campaign. In one the colonel mentions that he plans to start a new journal (alas no evidence of its existence has been found). The text of Thoburn's official reports for the period are also included, expertly shepherded along for the reader by the editor's bridging text. In three parts, the appendix section contains a small collection of letters from Thoburn's First West Virginia regiment, Thoburn's Piedmont battle report, and a collection of historical accounts of Thoburn's death.

This looks to be a very valuable resource for those seeking fresh information on the Shenandoah campaigns along with the life and Civil War service of Col. Thoburn. Going the extra mile, the scholarly presentation of the material by editor Scott Patchan is both extensive and visually appealing.

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