Book Reviews

GORDON: A Broken Regiment (2014)

Posted 5/27/2015 Reviewed By Peter C. Vermilyea

A Broken Regiment: The 16th Connecticut’s Civil War by Lesley J. Gordon.  Louisiana State University Press, 2014.  Cloth, IBSN: 978-0807157305.  $49.95.   
 

On the Otto Farm at the Antietam National Battlefield, 150 yards from the park road, stands the monument to the 16th Connecticut.  Its placement serves as a metaphor for the unit’s Civil War experience and legacy—the distance from the road keeps most visitors away, preventing the unit from basking in the glory its fellow Union army regiments have received.

In A Broken Regiment:  The 16th Connecticut’s Civil War, Lesley J. Gordon, professor of history at the University of Akron, sets out to tell the full story of the unit’s service. It is, she argues, “[o]ne that demonstrates not just the Civil War’s far-reaching and dehumanizing effects but the power of narrative to shape an often obscure, though illuminating human past.  We see experiences lived and partially hidden, memories shaped and sometimes rejected, and sacrifices endured as well as humiliations and indignities” (228).

Gordon opens by defending the genre of the Civil War regimental history. She writes: “most academic historians have been reluctant to write or even consult regimental histories, dismissing them as simple chronicles of past service or embellished anecdotes.”  However, “[t]he regimental history is perhaps the last genre of Civil War military history that has not undergone any sort of resurgence or reinvention” (3). Gordon ultimately argues that “regimental histories remain important for the study of the Civil War if only because the infantry regiment was a basic ‘building block’ of the armies and an essential source of identity for most Civil War soldiers. Enlisted men on both sides frequently felt strong affiliation to their nation and state, but most importantly they felt a deep bond to their specific regiment that reflected communal ties and personal relationships” (3). 

Unlike many nineteenth century regimentals, Gordon’s emphasis is on the attitudes and experiences of the enlisted men and on the tensions within the commissioned ranks—rather than a mere celebration of their battles. Furthermore, Gordon depicts the 16th Connecticut as a projection of its community, establishing the connection between the home front and the front lines through the use of a wide array of soldier and civilian letters and diaries, newspapers, and military service records.  

Above all, the story of the 16th Connecticut is the story of a hard luck regiment. Traditionally, regiments that achieved a measure of glory have been those emphasized by historians and recognized by the public.  The 16th Connecticut had a very different experience, which Gordon narrates in chronological fashion. Rushed to the front in September 1862 only weeks after it was formed, one soldier recounted that the regiment loaded its muskets for the first time on the eve of the battle of Antietam. On that terrible battlefield, the untested unit was struck by A.P. Hill’s Confederate division and fled the field after suffering over 240 casualties. The regiment was never the same.  It fell victim to repeated but false rumors that it had never been officially mustered into federal service and was thus ineligible for pay, further damaging morale. Ultimately, the regiment engaged the Confederates at the Battle of Plymouth, North Carolina, in April 1864, where the Confederates captured all but one company. The men suffered terribly for much of the remainder of the conflict as prisoners of war at Andersonville, Florence, or Charleston.

Gordon effectively shows that there was not a single experience in a Civil War regiment.  Rather, the regiment reflected the views of the community in which it was raised.  Some of the men were Democrats, some Republicans. Some loved army life, and some hated it.  Some idolized the colonel, and others despised him. And some were advocates of abolition, while others clearly were not.  Edwin Merritt visited his sick son, a member of the 16th, soon after the battle of Fredericksburg and reported to the Democratic Hartford Daily Times that soldiers had become demoralized by the “idea of fighting for Negro emancipation” (63). Robert Kellogg, meanwhile, wrote to his parents, “God, we must free the blacks or perish as a nation” (13). Gordon makes clear that for the officers of a regiment to mold their recruits into a successful unit, these differences had to be overcome; in the case of the 16th, this never completely happened during the war.

After the war, however, the regiment coalesced around the desire to assert a legacy of honor and bravery for the unit. Gordon’s final chapter, which describes the attempts made by the 16th to create this legacy amidst a culture that honored more traditional battlefield exploits, is truly outstanding. These attempts centered on the gathering of materials for the regiment’s history, emphasizing the dramatic story of how the unit’s flag was ripped into pieces rather than be surrendered, and working to honor the approximately 130 men comrades who died at Antietam. Ultimately, Gordon concludes that, “despite its efforts to be remembered, the 16th Connecticut has been largely overshadowed by the dramatic escapades of other regiments” (228).

This study of the 16th Connecticut may have benefited from placing that unit’s experiences in a broader context of other regiments. The opportunity is there. The 16th Connecticut was raised and trained in camp a camp next to the 14th Connecticut, and drew recruits from the same geographic area and socio-economic groups.  Gordon relates a particularly telling episode involving a group of men who had planned on enlisting in the 14th, but seeing a volunteer being disciplined, continued to the adjoining field and joined the 16th.  The 14th Connecticut performed admirably at Gettysburg, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania, while the 16th became the epitome of a “broken regiment.”  Was this a function of circumstances and assignment in the order of battle?  Or was it a function of leadership?

This should not, however, diminish Lesley Gordon’s wonderful achievement in shining a light on the heretofore mostly forgotten service and sacrifices of the 16th Connecticut. In doing so, she has set a standard for what modern regimental histories should be.   

 

Peter C. Vermilyea is Lecturer of History at Western Connecticut State University.

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