Thursday, January 10, 2019

At Long Last. . .A Regimental History of the 96th Pennsylvania!

The 96th Pennsylvania Volunteers in the Civil War
[Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland Publishing Co., 2018]
The 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, although perhaps the best known, was certainly not the only unit raised primarily in Schuylkill County during the American Civil War. Companies A and C of the 50th Pennsylvania, several companies of the nine-month 129th Pennsylvania, and several companies of the 7th Pennsylvania Cavalry, for example, were also recruited principally from the county's coal towns and agricultural districts. And then there was Schuylkill County's "other" regiment--the 96th Pennsylvania Volunteers, a hard-fighting, tough as nails infantry regiment which was organized during the late summer of 1861 and which served for the next three years in the famed Sixth Corps of the Army of the Potomac, participating in some of the war's most sanguinary fights and in some of its most storied campaigns. I say "other" regiment simply because, for far too long, the history and the memory of the 96th Pennsylvania remained little told and often sadly overlooked, particularly compared to other Schuylkill County units, such as the 48th. But now, at long last, we have a regimental history of the 96th Pennsylvania Infantry. 

Written by David Ward, a native of Schuylkill County and a long-time student of the 96th who wrote about the regiment for his master's thesis, The 96th Pennsylvania Volunteers in the Civil War provides an excellent history of this long overlooked regiment. Lively and well-paced, Ward's examination of the 96th takes us from the regiment's origins in Schuylkill County and then follows the actions of the regiment during its three-years of service as part of the Sixth Corps, Army of the Potomac, documenting well its transition from a green, untested unit to a hard-fighting, seasoned regiment that came to be relied upon for its steadfastness and its intrepidity upon the field of battle; a regiment that departed Schuylkill County late in 1861 with 1,200 men and which returned, three years later, with only 120 left. Ward tells of the marches and the battlefield maneuverings, chronicles the successes as well as the failures of the regiment on their many fields of battle, and provides a dramatic look at the regiment's most famous battlefield actions--at Gaines Mill, Crampton's Gap, Salem Church, and at Spotsylvania, each where the 96th suffered fearful losses. Along the way, Ward offers keen analysis of the leadership demonstrated by the regiment's high ranking officers upon these fields of battle, with a focus on the 96th's two commanding officers, Col. Henry Cake and Lt. Col. William Lessig. But perhaps even more interesting, or at least more fascinating, is the examination Ward provides on all the political in-fighting and controversies that seemingly plagued the high levels of command in the 96th; of Cake's and then Lessig's maneuverings to bypass the seniority system when it came to promotion and, instead, to nominate and commission their friends to fill vacancies. We also learn of how these two men, although brave and competent battlefield leaders, actively worked to ruin the military careers of those they either did not personally like or who stood in the way of their cronies' promotions. This was something not unique to the 96th; indeed, it occurred far too often in volunteer Civil War regiments. Yet, in the case of the 96th, it seemed a pronounced and persistent reality. 

While Ward does a fine job in telling the regiment's military history--its actions on their fields of battle--one of the strengths of this book is that he also nicely weaves into the narrative a social history of the regiment as well. For example, Ward examines the social and ethnic backgrounds of the 96th's soldiers, which essentially mirrored the social structure of Schuylkill County at this time. We discover, also, the motivations of these men--why they enlisted and how the endured both the monotony of camp life and the sheer horror and hell of the battle--as well as their thoughts on the war itself as well as the war's leaders. Ward also does an excellent job in documenting how the soldiers in the regiment felt about race, slavery, and emancipation, and how these thoughts changed over time. 

To tell the story of the 96th Pennsylvania--of the regiment's many trials and triumphs--Ward relies most heavily on the soldiers themselves, utilizing their letters, diaries, newspaper accounts, and memoirs and in so doing presents an authentic history using the soldiers own words. The firsthand accounts of those who fought either alongside or against the 96th on the battlefield are also plentifully used throughout. Ward also presents the history of the regiment objectively, telling the good as well as the bad, where the regiment succeeded and where it fell short or failed. 

I know David Ward personally and knew for some time he was writing a history of the 96th. I am so very pleased to see his dedicated efforts come to fruition. At long last, we have a regimental history of this long overlooked regiment. This is an excellent book and for anyone with an interest in the Civil War soldier; for anyone who has an interest in the Civil War's Eastern Theater and in the famed Sixth Corps; and especially for anyone who is interested in Pennsylvania's and particularly Schuylkill County's Civil War history, it is highly recommended. 


For more and to order your copy, click here.



The 96th PA at Camp Northumberland, 1862 
[Library of Congress]

Officers of the 96th PA, 1862
[Library of Congress] 




Here is what some others have said about The 96th Pennsylvania in the Civil War

“David Ward’s The 96th Pennsylvania Volunteers in the Civil War is a fine history of the Infantry. A regiment in the Army of the Potomac’s Sixth Corps, the 96th Pennsylvania served with distinction in the campaigns in the East. Ward’s book has all the elements of a model regimental history from its moving narrative to its research in many unpublished manuscripts and newspapers. The book is filled with accounts by its members and all the intrigues that plagued volunteer units. It is a most welcome work.”— Jeffry D. Wert, author of The Sword of Lincoln: The Army of the Potomac

“A History of the Ninety-sixth Pennsylvania Volunteers is one of the best Civil War regimental histories to be published in years. In a style reminiscent of Bruce Catton, author David Ward utilizes hundreds of first hand soldiers accounts to weave a narrative that puts the reader in the picture from the units genesis in the coal fields of eastern Pennsylvania through its baptism of fire at Gaines Mill and the bloodbaths of Crampton’s Gap and the Overland Campaign. Ward utilizes the ‘new history,’ blending both military and social history to tell the complete story the men of the 96th”—Ted Alexander, Historian (retired), Antietam National Battlefield, author of The Battle of Antietam: The Bloodiest Day

“The 96th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment was one of the great combat units of the Civil War. Yet, amazingly, this hard-hitting outfit has enjoyed no regimental history—until now. This book fills that gap. It covers the 96th Pennsylvania in the chaos of battle, on the march and in camp. Generous quotations from officers’ and soldiers’ letters, diaries, and memoirs, which were uncovered through prodigious research in dozens of manuscript repositories, give the narrative a human touch. The 96th Pennsylvania Volunteers in the Civil War belongs in every Civil War library.”—Richard J. Sommers, author of Richmond Redeemed: The Siege at Petersburg

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