Interpreting Regimental Histories

Eric Wittenberg and Brett Schulte have recently posted on their interests in unit histories. I’ve learned of a number of titles as a result that I will hopefully have a chance to check out at some point. While I enjoy reading older titles I much prefer the more recent studies which address a wider range of questions and are written by historians who tend to apply more analytical rigor to their subject. Earlier unit histories tended to be written by veterans of the unit or someone close to a veteran and concentrated on personal accounts and unit reunions. They are a fascinating and indispensible window into the postwar years as the connections forged during the war continued to bring together the remaining members of the unit. An example of this is Milton A. Embick’s History of the 3rd Division 9th Corps, Army of the Potomac (I have a first edition [1913] that is signed by Embick.)

My point today is to remind readers that many of these books were published to address ongoing disputes between individual units surrounding broader questions of victory and defeat on the battlefield. I’ve been dealing with this issue in my research on the Crater and have devoted an entire chapter on the postwar feud between Virginians, North and South Carolinians, Alabamians, and Georgians. As in the case of Gettysburg, Virginians established themselves as central figures in the first batch of postwar Crater accounts by arguing that they alone were responsible for victory on July 30, 1864. By the 1880′s veterans outside the Commonwealth cried foul as they struggled to establish their own accounts alongside those in Virginia who monopolized some of the more popular publications such as the Southern Historical Society Papers. If you read regimental histories from veterans of these states which address the Crater you will notice a wide range of interpretation of this battle. South Carolinians from Elliott’s brigade argue that the men who survived the initial explosion had regrouped by the time of Mahone’s counterattack thus minimizing the importance of Virginia’s involvement in resecuring the salient. DeWitt B. Stone’s edited collection (Wandering to Glory) of accounts of South Carolinians from Evans’s Brigade includes postwar accounts, but only hints at the ongoing disputes. Without a more complete picture of this background it is very difficult to make sense of these important discrepancies. A richer understanding of this background renders some of these accounts highly suspect. Unit histories from North Carolinians argued that their participation in the counterattack played as integral a role in resecuring the salient as the Virginians. Probably the most controversial question surrounding the Crater after the war was the timing of Mahone’s Virginians counterattack. The standard account is 9 a.m., but you will find regimental studies that place the attack anywhere between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. Perhaps the most popular unit study of the battle is the recently reprinted War Talks of Confederate Veterans (1892-reprint by Morningside Books) by George Bernard. Bernard fought in Mahone’s Virginia brigade and was a leader in the A. P. Hill Camp of Confederate Veterans, which commissionend him to take on this study. The book brings together Bernard’s own public addresses plus accounts from others who served in the brigade. The purpose of the book was to finally settle some of the disputes brought up in unit histories from outside the state, including the timing of Mahone’s attack, the role Mahone played in the attack, and the overall credit accorded specifically to Mahone’s Virginians. The National Park Service used Bernard’s book for their historical markers which were placed on the Crater battlefield in 1936.

Early unit histories are wonderful sources of information if they are interpreted properly.

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