Tuesday, January 24, 2006

More on Regimental Histories

One topic that has come up recently on some of other ACW blogs is regimental histories. Here is my two cents. In my collection of about 700 ACW volumes there are a number of regimental histories. My most valuable in terms of dollars are the original regimentals from Maine Regiments. One of my goals is to have a complete collection for each of the Maine Regimental Histories that were written. I do this out of a desire to collect and preserve. I enjoy reading them but I know that their portrayal of actual history can be some what skewed.

While the original regimental histories may be flawed historically I think they are a good starting point to understand the experience of the basic military unit that soldiers most closely identified with. In many cases it was the original regimental histories that became more of a monument for the survivors to recall their service and remember their comrades. In most cases these histories were not written by trained historians and as a result they lack the elements of critical analysis.

Edward J Hagerty in the preface to his Collis’ Zouaves writes about the value of original regimental histories.

The Civil War regimental history as genre has undergone a gradual metamorphosis in the 132 years that have passed since the end of that conflict. Books detailing the exploits of Civil War regiments began to make their appearance soon after war's end, but the vast majority of them were their appearance soon after wars end, but the vast majority of them were published between the years 1880 and 1910. By then, the passage of time had largely dulled the vivid sense of wars horror. Events could be written about with less passion and more impartiality, less criticism and more charity. The histories were typically written either by a former soldier from the ranks of the regiment or by professional writer engaged by the regiment's survivors. The results were varied.

Some were histories only in the loosest sense of the word, and many were merely panegyric testimonials to the heroic deeds of the regiment. Almost universally, however they were composed equally of nostalgia and propaganda. The resulting concoction usually tended to overlook any serious shortcomings of the men or of the regiment as a whole. Desertion was rarely mentioned. Poor performance was rationalized.


Thus, when evaluated in light of other primary source information, some late nineteenth-century regimental histories are more useful to scholars for the information discerned to have been omitted than for what they actually contain.


My opinion what make a regimental history historically valuable is the possession of a critical eye that takes a scholarly, academic approach to present both the good and the bad. Some modern day treatments of regimental histories are almost as bad historically the ones written by the veterans themselves. In my opinion most the histories in the H.E. Howard series Virginia Regiment fall into this category. However as readers of the ACW we have the good fortune to have had some really good regimental histories emerge over the past couple of decades. Some of my favorites include the following.

Hagerty, Edward J. Collis Zouvaes: The 114th Pennsylvania Volunteers in the Civil War. LSU (1997)

The author takes social history approach with tables and charts that provide insight in to the economic and societal make up of the regiment.

Wilkinson, Warren. Mother May You Never See the Sights I have Seen: The Fifty-Seventh Massachusetts Veteran Volunteers in the Army of the Potomac, 1864-1865. HarperCollins (1990)

This author provides a very well researched and very good written history of the 57th Massachusetts during the last year of the Civil War. The author also spent a lot of time on the regimental roster.

Keating, Robert, Carnival of Blood: The Civil War Ordeal of the Seventh New York Heavy Artillery. Butternut and Blue (1998)

I like this regimental because it is one of the first modern accounts to deal with the experiences of the heavy artillery during the Overland and Petersburg Campaigns. The author does a really good job describing how this regiment broke under fire only to redeem itself at Cold Harbor with a tremendous loss of life.

Miller, Richard, Harvard's Civil War: The History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. University Press of New England (2005)

A well written history of a well known New England regiment that that was made up of Harvard Men and New England Fishermen. I like how this author described the ethnic and cultural background of the men and how these differences played out during the regiment’s term of service.

Dunkleman, Mark H. Brothers One and All, Esprit de Corps in a Civil War Regiment. LSU (2004)

Although not technically a Regimental History of the 154th New York I think the author really does a good job in laying out what being a part of a Civil War Regiment ment to it’s members.

I am currently reading John J. Fox III’s Red Clay to Richmond, Trial of the 35Th Georgia Infantry Regiment, CSA. Angle Valley Press, (2004) which won the 2005 James I. Robertson Jr. Literary Prize for Confederate History.

This book uses a lot of primary material and has a lot of detailed maps. One the features I really like are pictures of some of the battlefields as they appear today. The author does a good job pointing out some of the major topographical elements that influenced the course of action during the battles the 35th took part in.

While there is always talk that there is no fertile ground left to cover in the Civil War, I think these authors have used fresh approaches to prove that there is still much ground to cover and new stories to tell.

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