Book Reviews

SIMPSON: All for the Union (2022)

Posted 7/20/2022 Reviewed By Eric Michael Burke

All for the Union: The Saga of One Northern Family Fighting the Civil War by John A. Simpson. Stackpole Books. 2022. Cloth, ISBN: 978-0811770873. $34.95.

 

In what can only be described as a labor of love, John Simpson provides readers with a detailed glimpse of the climactic eastern theater of the rebellion through the lens of an extended New York family that seems to have been just about everywhere.

The Ellithorpes of Allegany County, New York, contributed two sons and a son-in-law to the Union cause, and one hundred eighty of their missives—as well as many of those they received in camp from their sisters and wives—have survived to tell their tale. Using these letters in addition to an impressive array of newspapers, regimental histories, and recent historiography, Simpson has reconstructed the wartime narrative of their lives, even during periods when the correspondents themselves were all but silent.

The three volunteers, Phillip (13th Pennsylvania Reserves, “Bucktails”), Philander (27th New York and later 2nd New York Mounted Rifles), and Asa (5th Vermont and later 1st New York Dragoons) each underwent their own private corner of the Army of the Potomac’s four-year saga of trials and tribulations. One gave his life to preserve the government, all underwent bouts of both doubt and sickness, and one would suffer the injuries he sustained for the rest of his natural life. Simpson likewise chronicles the experiences of the three women who strove mightily to bolster the determination of the men they loved while simultaneously enduring all the challenges native to rural wartime New York.

While much of Simpson’s narrative of the eastern campaigns offers little in the way of novelty, taken together, the Ellithorpe family perspective of the war offers the reader an insightful taste of the conflict as lived by families who sent multiple loved ones into different volunteer commands. Whereas most edited letter collections encompass the correspondence of a single soldier and loved ones at home, charting the progress of only his regiment, rare was the American family that knew but one volunteer in the tented field. Instead, like the Ellithorpes, most absorbed the fateful daily news with an especial eye to very particular locations, units, and engagements that may have bore significantly less personal import to even next-door neighbors. Because of this, the war narrative took a unique and distinct trajectory within the bounds of each family even as the same events that rocked the nation from north to south provided a common temporal framework over which personal family dramas could be draped. This book offers a perfect example of one such family drama.
 

Simpson also provides a notable contribution to the literature by examining not only the deep antebellum roots of the Ellithorpes, but also the long-term postwar implications resulting from their wartime experiences and injuries. While most edited letter collections offer brief biographical sketches of the correspondents, rarely is such care and attention paid by editors to embedding wartime stories within the longue durée of not only individual lives but an entire family genealogy. The result is a work which places the protagonists within a much broader context of mid-nineteenth century America, as opposed to merely the years of civil war.

Readers may wish that Simpson would have relied a bit more on Phillip, Philander, and Asa’s words than on his own reconstruction of campaign narratives (drawn mostly from extant regimental histories). On several occasions, this reader found himself wanting to read a letter in its entirety, divorced even from what is usually shrewd analysis on Simpson’s part.

Regardless, for especially those with an interest in the fabled “Bucktail” 13th Pennsylvania Reserves (which most of the letters consulted concern), All for the Union offers yet another lens through which to trace the timeworn trail of the embattled Army of the Potomac.

 

Eric Michael Burke is the author of Soldiers From Experience: The Forging of Sherman’s Fifteenth Army Corps, 1862-1863.

 

 

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