We’ve been waiting for this book for some time. I remember talking to Lesley Gordon about regimental histories eight years ago following a panel discussion I took part in at the AHA in Philadelphia. Well, her new book, A Broken Regiment: The 16th Connecticut’s Civil War, arrived on Tuesday and I am just about finished reading it. I highly recommend that you pick up a copy.
Traditional regimental histories feature a battle or campaign in which a specific unit played a prominent role by entering the fray at a decisive moment and leaving a fair share of its men as casualties in a clear display of martial manhood. It’s the moment that defines the command both during the war and in memory. The more action the better. In recent years the focus of the unit history has expanded based on broader developments in the field. For me, the interpretive possibilities of unit histories was impressed upon me after reading Charles Brooks’s 2001 essay in The Journal of Southern History about the Texas Brigade. The “social and cultural dynamics of soldiering” as part of a unit can be seem in recent studies by Mark Dunkelman, G. Ward Hubbs, Earl Hess, and Gerald Prokopowicz, to name just a few.
Gordon’s study of the 16th Connecticut dovetails with many of the themes covered in previous unit histories. The book explores the politics of soldiering, morale, cowardice, the relationship between enlisted men and officers, connections with the home front, and camp life. But it does so in an incredibly unconventional overall narrative. The 16th’s claim to fame is not a battle in which they distinguished themselves for gallantry, but one in which they fled in a full-scale rout. Antietam was the unit’s “baptism of fire” and one that hung over it’s collective identity through the end of the war and beyond. It was their only major battle of the war apart from a brief skirmish outside Suffolk, Va and a brief siege that led to the capture of 400 of its men at Plymouth, NC in 1864. From there it was off to Andersonville, where one-third perished. The only other action experienced by the unit occurred at the end of an extended stay in Portsmouth, Va., where the men burned their own camp to the ground rather than see it fall into the hands of another unit that came to replace them after the 16th received orders to move to North Carolina.
A regimental study with a rout at Antietam and Andersonville serving as wartime bookmarks with little adventure in between certainly offers the potential for a number of important insights, but it also raises questions about the significance of specific points of interpretation. First, how unique is the story of the 16th Connecticut? Plenty of units experienced less than glorious moments on individual battlefields, but I assume that the majority had an opportunity to redeem themselves at some point. To what extent did increased exposure to major battles/campaigns shape the outlook and cohesion of these units compared with a regiment like the 16th? More specifically, how does the 16th compare with other units in terms of…
- overall support of the Union war effort
- necessity of emancipation and recruitment of black soldiers
- religious revivals
- social dynamics
How decisive was active campaigning on soldiers in battle-tested units compared with those who served in units like the 16th?
I don’t mean for any of this to overshadow the value of Gordon’s narrative. In fact, given the narrative trajectory of most unit histories I think Gordon took a major risk in choosing to write about the 16th. That risk certainly paid off in my mind. The stories of individual men come through beautifully and at times is even heartbreaking. More importantly, Gordon provides an opportunity to think about central issues related to the soldier experience apart from the iconic battles of the Eastern Theatre that dominated the accounts and memories of so many soldiers.
Hope to have more to say about this book as I finish the last two chapters.