I am currently reading through Mark H. Dunkelman’s new book, War’s Relentless Hand: Twelve Tales of Civil War Soldiers (LSU Press, 2006). In many ways this is a companion volume to his fine regimental study, Brothers One and All: Esprit de Corps in a Civil War Regiment (LSU Press, 2004) which focused on the 154th New York Volunteer Infantry. Dunkelman’s regimental history is one of the best examples of what we can be done when the right questions are asked; the author examines both the political and social dynamics of the unit as well as the way it functioned as an extension of the home front. Even better, Dunkelman extends his history of the unit into the postwar years. As I mentioned in my post the other day, unfortunately, this aspect is often overlooked in unit histories. While the rigors of battle and camp life were no longer functioning as the glue that tied the men together the veterans remained active in organizations, reunions, reenactments, and crafting their preferred history of their service in the army.
Dunkelman’s most recent study is difficult to categorize. The book includes 12 sketches of men who served in the 154th New York. The particular individuals were chosen based on the uniqueness of their story. As the men served in the same unit they shared a broad range of experiences; however, Dunkelman manages to locate stories which remind us that each soldier experienced the war in their own way. One of the most interesting stories involves Private Milton H. Bush who managed to find a substitute only to discover in 1864 that his name had never been taken off the muster rolls. Bush was forced to join the army in 1864 and while his paper work requesting a discharge based on the obvious mistake that had been made was working its way through the military’s bureaucracy his unit was ordered to Georgia. While fighting in Georgia Bush was stricken with a bowel disorder and was sent to Nashville for convalescing where he died. The paperwork that granted Bush his discharge came through two months after his death.
To be honest I was a little wary of this book. It does not have the analytical rigor of his regimental study, which is somewhat surprising for an academic press book. It will be interesting to see if reviewers harp on that alone. I say that because if they do dwell on that alone they would have missed something that I am still trying to put my finger on. Books on the common soldier are nothing new and the number and sophistication continues to increase with each passing year. That said, there is something attractive about a stripped down study of average soldiers without the analytical framework. Each chapter begins with a trip to a cemetery which the author narrates. At first I found it to be distracting but then I was reminded of a common practice in the Jewish tradition, which involves placing a stone on the grave being visited. It is both a sign of respect and a sign that someone was present. In a way Dunkelman’s book functions along similar lines. Each soldier’s name serves as the chapter title and no more than 25 pages are set aside for each individual. And when you get down to it they probably don’t deserve much more. However, that is not really the point, what matters is that they are acknowledged. In the end the individuals emerge for just a short time and while they make an impression they soon fade away.