Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Review - "Chicago to Appomattox: The 39th Illinois Infantry in the Civil War" by Jason Baker

[Chicago to Appomattox: The 39th Illinois Infantry in the Civil War by Jason B. Baker (McFarland, 2022). Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, roster, notes, bibliography. Pages main/total:viii,201/302. ISBN:978-1-4766-8620-2. $39.95 ]

A populous western state with enormous political influence, Illinois wielded its great military strength in leadership and men almost exclusively in the Civil War West. Only a handful of Illinois units served in the eastern theater, with the 8th Illinois Cavalry arguably the most prominent among them. Another regiment that found its way to the Virginia front early in the conflict was the 39th Illinois Volunteer Infantry (the "Yates Phalanx"), its 1861-65 Civil War odyssey ably recounted by Jason Baker in Chicago to Appomattox: The 39th Illinois Infantry in the Civil War.

Every Civil War student is acutely aware of the central role played by governors in the process of organizing state volunteer regiments for federal service. Though Baker finds scant evidence of any special involvement on the part of Illinois governor Richard Yates's during the regiment's formative period, it does seem more than likely that the "Yates Phalanx" moniker adopted by the 39th possessed at least some element of currying political favor. Yates was responsible for the 39th ending up in the eastern theater, though selection was a happenstance of availability and timing rather than the result of any particular design.

Understanding that the manuscript's research was conducted during pandemic conditions that, for example, shut down archives for personal visits, readers will find the bibliography to be more internet-heavy than most and rather limited in number and range of sources in comparison to many other book projects of this type. With those limitations in mind, Baker's synthesis of the material is well executed. Framing his study around the 1889 history of the regiment authored by its surgeon, Dr. Charles Clark, along with a handful of previously published diaries and letters, Baker's narrative incorporates a fairly rich collection of first-hand observations of the regiment's leadership, organization, and wartime adventures on and off the battlefield.

In recounting the 39th's campaign and battle involvement, Baker describes the regiment's own experiences in some detail, always situating those events within the ebbs and flows of the surrounding battle in a manner readily comprehended by the reader (though some more maps would have helped). Wider context related to regional campaigns and national strategy is also frequently offered.

The regiment saw its first action in 1862 in the mountains of northwestern Virginia and in the adjacent Shenandoah Valley. From there it was garrison duty in eastern Virginia, with the regiment settling in around Suffolk. By January 1863, the 39th found itself shipped to the Charleston front. There, it was heavily involved in the prep work for the amphibious leap from Folly Island to Morris Island, receiving praise for its efforts and fortitude but at the same time not being placed in the front line for the bloodiest action during assault and siege operations against Battery Wagner. As the year ended, much of the regiment was furloughed. That winter also marked a major transition in the 39th's war experience, which up to that time had largely consisted of reserve and other behind the scenes functions. That would abruptly change in the coming spring.

As recounted in depth in the book, the Bermuda Hundred and Overland campaigns launched in the spring of 1864 inaugurated both a new phase of the war in the East and by far the most bloody period of the 39th's Civil War service. Beginning with the Battle of Drewry's Bluff, during which the heavily engaged regiment played a key role in bolstering the Union left on May 12, the unit embarked upon a trying year of intense, front-line service at, among other places, Ware Bottom Church (where, on May 20, the 39th Illinois was apparently a bright spot in what a recent Bermuda Hundred campaign history termed an underappreciated Confederate victory), Deep Bottom, Darbytown Road, and Fort Gregg. In suffering the vast majority of its 144 combat deaths and 411 woundings in action during this final year of the war, the 39th Illinois had more than done its duty.

More information about individuals who served in the regiment can be found in the capsule biographies that begin each chapter and in the epilogue discussing the postwar lives of a select group of 39th Illinois veterans. In the appendix section, Baker also reproduces, with some new additions (ex. company summaries and data tables) and revisions, the detailed set of company rosters originally compiled by Dr. Clark.

Every volunteer regiment that fought its way through the horrors of the Civil War deserves its own modern study, and Jason Baker's Chicago to Appomattox offers both a solid account of the 39th Illinois's wartime history from recruitment to discharge and a useful collection of reference material related to its officers and men. Regimental histories are indispensable resources in researching campaigns and battles, and Baker's contribution to the unit study literature should find its way into the bibliographies of future books addressing a number of topics, particularly the 1863 fighting in and around Charleston's sea island defenses and the late-war battles in Virginia fought by the Army of the James.

1 comment:

  1. To the commenter wanting to know the author of the review, all content on the site is written by the same person. See here: https://cwba.blogspot.com/p/about.html


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