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.