Have Unit Histories Hit a Brick Wall?

I just finished reading Scott Mingus’s book on the Louisiana Tigers for a review in the journal, Louisiana History.  Mingus’s focus is specifically the Gettysburg Campaign (June-July 1863)  Let me just say at the outset that I thoroughly enjoyed the book.  Mingus has a command of the relevant primary sources and the book is well written and should be read by those interested in military history, Louisiana History and, of course, Gettysburg.  I will post the review when it is published, but I wanted to share a few thoughts that will not make it in the review owing to space issues.

It seems to me that unit histories fall into one of two camps.  The first one, and by far the most prominent, is the standard/traditional unit history, which emphasizes the campaigns/battles in which the unit participated.  This should come as no surprise given that this is what most Civil War enthusiasts are interested in.  The focus may be on a unit’s experience in a particular campaign or the war as a whole.  By focusing on one unit the historian is able to provide a level of tactical detail that is usually absent from broader studies.  The best of the bunch may even be able to point out crucial aspects of a particular battle that work to revise our understanding of its outcome and significance.  Mingus’s book fits neatly into this first camp.  He offers the reader a brief history of the unit, beginning with the raising of Company B under the command of Major Chatham Roberdeau Wheat in New Orleans in 1861.  Mingus briefly touches on the unit’s early history before the battalion was assigned to the First Louisiana Brigade under the command of brigadier general Harry T. Hays in 1862.  From there it is a quick jump to the spring of 1863 following the decisive Confederate victory at Chancellorsville.  Mingus does an outstanding job of following the unit on its march north toward Maryland and Pennsylvania and covers the unit’s involvement in the battle of Second Winchester in great detail.  It goes without saying that Mingus’s coverage of the “Louisiana Tigers” at Gettysburg will satisfy even the most voracious appetites for tactical detail.

I think the best way to characterize this second camp of unit histories is to suggest that the questions that drive these historians do not fall out of any particular battle or campaign.  In other words, what needs to be explained about a particular unit is not simply its battlefield exploits – though many of these studies provide such detail – but how it functioned and managed to maintain cohesiveness at any one time or over time.  There is something obvious about such a perspective given that the overwhelming majority of time was spent away from the battlefield.  One could even conclude that what happened away from the battlefield within a unit directly influenced its performance in battle and for that reason must be understood. Here I am thinking of Charles Brooks’s Journal of Southern History article (2001) on Hood’s Texas Brigade.  Brooks writes:

This study examines the social and cultural dynamics of leadership, command, and soldiering in Hood’s Texas Brigade for clues to unravel the broader enigma of the antebellum southern social structure, particularly with regard to the place and status of plain folk, yeoman farmers, and other non-elite whites. Much of the literature about the antebellum South hinges on the long-standing debate over whether the Old South was an elitist slaveholding aristocracy or an agrarian plain-folk democracy.(3) The drift of many recent studies has been toward synthesis, arguing that antebellum society represented a hybrid of hierarchy and equality.(4) However, even studies that recognize the complexity and paradoxes of this society fall short as social history, because the class dynamic that they advance to link elite and commoner, rich and poor, is too one-sided. The planters’ hegemony is a given. “The nonslaveholder,” according to one historian, “was in a very passive, dependent position vis-a-vis the planter.”(5) Studies based on the so-called republican synthesis also tend to infer yeoman values and ideas from the language and behavior of political elites; consequently, the social relation is seen from the top down, the capacity of plain folk to form their own lives is shortchanged, and thus the truly dynamic, interactive, and relational nature of power in the antebellum South has not been fully understood.(6)

The common soldiers of Hood’s Texas Brigade fought the Civil War mainly on their own terms, defending and justifying their right to do so by drawing on a unique mix of ideological and cultural resources. Their conduct as soldiers combined beliefs about popular sovereignty and natural liberty with backcountry shaming rituals of social control, like the charivari, that were used to hold privates and officers alike to particular standards of conduct defined by the volunteer soldiers themselves. This essay examines how popular constitutional ideas and traditional forms of community action affected the performance of one of the elite fighting units in the Army of Northern Virginia. It is based on a rich body of wartime letters and reminiscences that offers the historian the rare opportunity to encounter young men speaking and acting for themselves during a time of great personal and social crisis.(7)

Brooks reminds us that companies, regiments, etc. were dynamic social units that struggled to maintain discipline and combat effectiveness through periods of intense pressure hundreds of miles from home and loved ones.  In the same way that I’ve suggested that we need to understand how the war affected the master-slave relationship, Brooks reminds us that we need to understand how it affected white Southerners from different classes, who were forced to interact in ways that were foreign during the antebellum era.  And it’s in a unit history that we can address such questions.

I am also reminded of G. Ward Hubbs’s thought provoking study, Guarding Greensboro: A Confederate Company in the Making of a Southern Community (University of Georgia Press, 2003).  Hubbs chronicles the history of the Greensboro Guards, which became Company D of the Fifth Alabama Infantry, as part of the broader history of a west-central Alabama frontier town.  Not only does Hubbs explore the challenges involved in bringing together men from various social/cultural backgrounds, but he follows the unit through some of the most horrific fighting of the war, not simply as a piece of a larger army, but as an extension of the community from which they were raised.  The experience of battle itself becomes much more interesting when approached from a set of questions that reveal the unit as more than simply a collection of individuals.

Again, I want to emphasize that this is not meant simply as a criticism of the standard/traditional unit history or of Mingus’s book in particular.  Actually, Mingus explores a number of issues, including the unit’s interaction with civilians and accounts of soldiers from those who served in units close to the Louisiana Tigers and even from Union soldiers who met them in battle.  Rather, I am interested in the limitations of how we approach the past and how we can do it better.  As much as I enjoyed Mingus’s book I found myself asking questions about the unit that I thought would help me to better understand their experiences throughout the Gettysburg Campaign.  In particular, I wanted to know much more about how the unit’s place of origin shaped the command structure up to and through Gettysburg.  If we are to understand units as extensions of communities than there is no more interesting case study than the Louisiana Tigers given the region’s distinctive racial/social/ethnic dynamic.  I was also curious as to how Union occupation of southern Louisiana by the spring of 1862 had affected the unit’s morale and discipline.  There are other questions as well that connect to the structural dynamics of the unit.  In short, I found myself wanting to know more about the factors that shaped the unit that in turn help to better understand everything that goes into waging a successful campaign on the company, regimental, and brigade level.

No doubt, some of you are going to suggest that this is simply a function of the interest of the historian and that I should move on.  To a certain extent I agree, but the issue at hand is whether a specific narrative or interpretive structure can tell us what we need to know about how men in a specific unit experienced a battle/campaign and the war as a whole.   It’s a matter of the questions that are driving the research and interpretation.  We are not at a loss to explain the horrific fighting that various units experienced at some point during the war.  What we do need to better understand are the unique conditions that had a direct impact on how soldiers fought as a unit.  Without such an analytical structure the specific unit in question becomes less relevant.  In other words, we might as well ask what is the difference between describing the battlefield experiences of the Louisiana Tigers as opposed to the Stonewall Brigade, Iron Brigade, etc.

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18 thoughts on “Have Unit Histories Hit a Brick Wall?

  1. Pingback: Things new and old « Past in the Present

  2. Don

    Kevin,
    I think you raise some excellent points here, particularly as my partner and I are working through the second draft of our unit history. In this particular instance, I believe the ability to conduct such examinations depends on the primary source material available. if no one wrote home about it, in other words, it's extremely unlikely that one would be able to look at it very closely. if the information is available, however, I think it would definitely contribute the work's overall appeal and value.

    Time to go back through our sources yet again….

    Thansk for the insight.

    Reply
  3. Peter

    Kevin,

    These issues, among others, are covered pretty deftly in Jason Phillips's article “”Battling Stereotypes: A Taxonomy of Common Soldiers in Civil War History” in History Compass 6 (September 2008). I'd recommend taking a look at it.

    I think you are right to say that the issue with the first type of unit histories is something other than a question of interest. I tend to view it as being faithful to the past and respecting these soldiers as humans. Their motivations for fighting have to be explained in a sustained and complex manner, as well as how their views of themselves and the world changed over the course of the war. Offering a simple “they answered their country's call” usually serves as an answer for these explanations, but really it should be the start of a whole line of subsequent questions. What did the soldiers see as their country? What did they think their call meant? What did they think patriotism meant? How did these views change over the war? And so forth. Beyond the importance of this kind of analysis to the historian, the soldiers themselves thought about these things. Not grappling with these issues robs the soldiers of their humanity and turns them in to objects of nostalgia and spectacle.

    As for the type of unit histories that fall into the second category, I think there is a fairly constant flow of them. Richard Miller's “Harvard's Civil War,” Richard Reid's “Freedom for Themselves,” Joseph Glatthaar's “Lee's Army,” Lesley Gordon's work on the 16th Connecticut, and Jeffrey McClurken's “Taking Care of the Living” all come to mind as examples of unit histories that take more than an a purely operational approach to the narrative.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin

      Thanks for the Phillips reference. You ask some of the most relevant questions and I would just add that we need to address them over time. And if we understand the unit as an extension of the home front than we also need to understand how developments in their respective communities affected the structure of the organization.

      All of the historians mentioned above are doing solid work in this area. I would also add Mark Dunkelman, who authored a book on a New York regiment. What I really like about Mark's book is that he tracks the unit through the postwar years. That's not always an easy thing to do given the available evidence.

      Reply
  4. ericwittenberg

    I think that the best unit history addresses both the traditional aspects, but which also tells you who these men were and why they did what they did. I tried hard to do that with my regimental history of the 6th PA Cavalry. You can't really understand the dynamic of the unit without understanding the blue blood, upper crust officer corps juxtaposed against the blue collar crowd that made up its ranks, as the relationship is a microcosm of Philadelphia society in 1861. It was a challenge, but I think I succeeded. One of the things that I did in the conclusion is to specifically address what happened to some of the soldiers after the war. It was a very interesting thing to pull those threads and see where they led.

    Reply
  5. scottmingus

    Hello Kevin!

    I am flattered by your positive comments about the book! The central focus (and centerpoint) of my book is the interactions of the Louisiana soldiers with the civilian population in southern Pennsylvania, and the book's is centered in their actions here in my home of York County, PA, framed of course by the battles of Second Winchester and Gettysburg. As this famed brigade has been the subject of books that cover it during the entire war (such as Terry Jones' fine treatise of a few years ago) and individual regiments covered in war-length depth (James Gannon's book on the 6th LA), I did not want to rehash much of what they had already written but instead focus on the human side of the invasion of Pennsylvania. Hence, as you pointed out, I did not want to drag the book down with a lot of deeper context but instead write a narrative history of their actions, movements, events, and most of all, their soldiers. Little exists in their meager writings about the reaction in the summer of 1863 to the events of 1862 and the Federal occupation, as those emotions had been vented months beforehand and Jones adequately covers that aspect.

    Still, I think the type of historical research you refer to in the second camp is worthwhile, although being a scientist by trade and not a professional historian/educator like my two sons (one of whom is a college professor of history), I find precious little appeal in clinical essay-type interpretive history so I don't deal with it in my books.

    Thanks for a very nice review and a thought-provoking blog posting! For more on York County's rich Civil War history, please visit my blog at http://www.yorkblog.com/cannonball/.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin

      Thanks for taking the time to respond to this post. Like I said, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but keep in mind that this is not what will appear in the journal review. Your book does exactly what you set out to explore and it does it well. I definitely am a believer that we should research what we find interesting. My broader comments were much more about the broader historiography and the different directions that historians might want to explore.

      Reply
  6. margaretdblough

    Kevin-

    The relationship between slaveholding and non-slaveholding whites was a fluid and complex one. The slaveholding caste wasn't a hereditary one and could be entered and left depending on financial circumstances. One of the driving forces of the ultimately unsuccessful drive by some to have the law changed to permit the legal African slave trade to resume was that slave prices were getting so high as to put them out of reach of all but the already very prosperous. The concern was that, if the hope of non-slave owning whites and/or their children ever entering the slaveowner ranks was destroyed, it would lead to the end of the basis for white unity as described in the “Mudsill” portion of Sen. Hammond's King Cotton speech.

    Reply
  7. margaretdblough

    Kevin-

    It was in response to your comments on the Mingus book. I've been getting this strange warning message saying that the settings on my browser is not letting me log in (although it doesn't tell me WHAT setting on my browser is an issue) but I seem to be able to log in. It threw me a bit earleir.

    Reply
  8. Margaret

    Kevin,

    It's strange. I can enter it, but I don't see the comment and the please wait doesn't stop circling until I navigate away and come back. I'm trying this by linking through Yahoo

    Reply
  9. margaretdblough

    I figured out a method. It's a little cumbersome but it works so, unless something more happens, it will do and we'll just have to write it off to the whims of the computer gods.

    Reply
  10. Bobby Edwards

    Unit Histories may not have hit a brick wall, and I suggest a fresh new approach to the more traditional strategy of one person gathering all of the information, resources, and material and then publishing. Today, the web is providing a special tool of technical resources in which the approach can be shifted from an Individual Approach to a Group Approach to study, gather, and elicit a comprehensive study of a Regiment's history – taking into account many of the factors mentioned such as the flavor of the communities that Companies were recruited from. A gathering of Interested Descendents working on a Collaborative Web-Based Project is What I recommend to Take Regimental Research to a “New Level”.

    I have conducted a search for descendents across the Country, with many different sites being tagged with leads to bring those searching for their ancestor back to my Unit Project. Currently, I have over 100 descendents that have found my site, and I believe as we get well into the Sesquicentennial – the numbers of descendents could approach several hundred. They come from all over the Country, and I have found descendents from many of the Officers, and NCO's. Their Contributions range from Photos, Letters, Research, and Articles. As the Project is an Ongoing Project – What we may be able to accomplish five or ten years down the road, in my opinion could be significant to an understanding of the North Carolina Cavalry and a Perspective of the Cultural Perspective of the Men before the War – as they enlisted to serve with Cavalry.

    The men had to have some means of providing forage and feed for their own horses and care for them, and if they lost a mount – they had to replace their own mounts. The collection of letters adds tremendously to a feeling of the requirements of the soldiers to provide their own financial requirements to fight in the war, and letters from individuals like Henry Machen Patrick (his tombstone beside my ancestor's) about his feelings of the war and why they were fighting gives you some of the understandings of why they fought.

    Some examples of my project of the study of the 3rd North Carolina Cavalry (41st NCT) with 10 Companies formed primarily from Eastern North Carolina. The officers were from the elite upper class of Wilmington, N.C. and the Privates and Sgts. were from the farms and villages of rural counties. One of the Companies, The “Scotland Neck Mounted Riflemen” formed a Company of Mounted Cavalry before the War started. There's an abundance of Community Material that requires an Understanding of Where these Men Came from and What Happened to them when they returned.

    On the Web Site, I have an abundant amount of “After the War” research of the Men who served with the Unit, and I look for how they contributed to their Communities after the war and how they came back to communities like Washington, North Carolina – Which had been almost burned to the ground, when Federal Troops withdrew after the Capture of Plymouth. Many Incidents during the war and what happened to the Men of North Carolina Cavalry Such as – One Member Hanged as a Deserter at Kingston, Some of the 3rd in POW Camps Signed Allegiance and became “Galvanized Yankee's” to fight Indians in the West. From those Troopers that Became Mayors of Wilmington, a Founder of Duke University, a Congressman, a President of a Woman's College – Their Histories Provide the After War Analysis that these Men Moved on to a Life of Community Contribution. One of the Members, Julian Shakespeare Carr, a Co-Founder of Duke University, also became the 1922-1923 Commander of Confederate Veterans.

    The Web Based Approach has Descendents coming back again and again to the site, and some contributing in way's such as detailed Excel Sheets, and Others Individual Research. We will Find More Descendents, and We Will Build a History of the Unit that Speaks to their Courage in the Saddle, and their Contribution to their Community. I will start out this Spring and Travel the Counties of Eastern North Carolina where these Regiments were Formed and Mine the Communities for Descendents with more letters, more photos, and more History of the Communities from where these Men came from.

    You Can See More In Detail At This Link of the 3rd North Carolina Cavalry:

    http://www.myfamily.com/group/nc3rdcavalry

    TAR HEELS Forever….The Project Has Not Ended, It has Just Begun.

    Bobby Edwards

    Reply
    1. Dan Weinfeld

      Bobby's note and great website raises questions in my mind about the future of history publishing – at least in the area of narratives focused on a certain time or group. As I consider the best format to present my extensive Reconstruction era research, I'm starting to think that a website is a better idea than finding a publisher or, at least, a effective companion to a published book. A website in support of a book, or in place of a book, opens many possibilties. For example, I struggle with what to do with primary sources: freedmen's bureau reports, newspapers accounts, letters, etc. that I've laboriously recovered and transcribed over the years. I don't “own” these records: they should be accessible to anyone with interest. I'm considering ways to link to transcriptions or images of these sources so that anyone who reads the book can go to the website and check for themselves. Also, as Bobby's site shows, the website allows for updates and provides a forum for people with personal connections to the subject matters through their ancestors or interest in local history. Consequently, a dead-tree book combined with a website can potentially become a living, growing thing while a published book alone may be quickly relegated to a back shelf, or not read at all (until googlebooks resurrects it). Finally, after my limited experience with publishing in academic journals , the sitemeter shows me that assures me that many, many more people will come across my website than will ever read those articles. Any writers here have any thoughts on this?

      Reply
      1. Bobby Edwards

        Dan, thanks so much for the response and your considered observations. Please allow me to add some extra background as to how I came to this My Family http://www.myfamily.com Format to include an effort of others to research a topic of mutual interest.

        Back in July of 2000, I came across a Web Site that focused on the 6924th Intelligence Squadron at DaNang, and that was my unitfrom 1968 to 1969. Our unit had some of the most actionable intelligence during the war, and the project that I was involved in was considered an “Ultra Top Secret” project that not even the base commander could get into the area that we were working. For the first time in history, our Unit was providing real time intelligence back to a variety of consumers throughout the Southeast Asia Theater. My mission was the Intercept of the North Vietnames Air Defense Network of Hanoi and Haiphong. Everything that happened in that Air Defense Network, such as turning on of various types of Radar, Activation and Plotting of MiG's, Activation of SAM Sites, or Shoot Downs of American Aircraft were Plotted and Broadcast back to AAA Batteries, SAM Sites, and NVA Air Force Units. Our Intercept of that Morse Traffic was Critical in Fighting that Air War, and I was the Primary Intercept Operator from Oct of 1968 through September of 1969. It was one of the most mentally draining experiences that I have ever had in my life, as a Shoot Down with Grid Coordinates would only allow me the Opportunity to Stand up and yell at the Top of my Voice – “End of Track” or if MiG's were Launched – I yelled equally as loud – “Friendlies [MiG's]“. My analyst would be behind my back watching the traffic and reporting to the 7th Air Force the Traffic Indicators that they would follow at Da Nang and aboard an Air Force EC-121 hovering the Tonkin Gulf, where Operators Aboard were Reporting my Traffic Collection Immediately to our Pilots Flying North.

        All of our troops were involved in some way in Unique Activities of Intelligence Gathering, Analysis, Reporting, and Maintainence of Radios and Electronics. Our's was one of the more unique operations of the time, and for a period of time, all the way until 1998 – we were not allowed to communicate about our experiences, although we all knew that we did something very special at the time. The Web brought us all together, and soon Reunions followed the abundance of Chatter and Web Blogging that Members painstakenly Painted their Experiences and their Involvement. The NSA / CIA have declassified much of the material, processes, and collection content. The Stories are now coming out, because all of those in the operation were working in a “Bubble” – they only knew what happened in their area, and the Web allowed the Troops to Synergize them and to Understand how their efforts played out in the grand scheme of things. Individuals can have a great depth of experiences and knowledge, but collectively when knowledgable individuals come together for a common cause – some great efforts can be realized.

        Within a year or so, I started a Web Site for the 6910th Intelligence Unit from Darmstadt, Germany, and Today we have close to 1,400 members with large numbers of members visiting the site again and again and again. Some have signed on to the site over 5,000 times, and hundreds have visited over 2,500 times. We have some of the brightest Intelligence Analysts, Radio Operators, Linguists, and Maintence Personnel contribute some powerful history to the contributions of the American Intelligence efforts in Europe during the Cold War. From both sites, significant contributions by individuals have resulted in a variety of output material, ranging from Individual Stories, Books, Magazine Articles, and DVD and CD Presentations.

        A year or so ago, the 3rd North Carolina Cavalry Site was started, and material not found in Libraries or other published resources have appeared from the collections of the descendents of the site, who treasure the memories of their ancestors. Like the Military Intelligence Sites, once the Sites reach a Quantum Mass of Members – Some Exciting Energy takes place, and Members begin to realize why they are there, and their contributions become significant. It's a rough slog at first, as you have to mine the web to attract those interested in your project, but for Regimental Histories and the Topic of this Thread – There are only about 20% to 25% complete, if that many according to some quick looks at the number of North Carolina Regiments and How Many Books have been Published. More Importantly taking on a Regimental History on an Individual Basis may leave out some very important content, where you may not have the opportunity to travel or visit some of the locations where good content would be available.

        My feeling is that as the time frame crunches on the 150 year Sesquicentennial of the War Between the States, there will be many efforts to Push Web Involvement in Developing Regimental History, and for those Interested in launching a pursuit of this venture, the http://www.myfamily.com format can be one of the best aspects of developing a broad based collection effort involving others. The Thousands of Others that I have worked with on the My Family Format since 2000 is a Great Testimony.

        Bobby

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