Rein on Mellott and Snell, 'The Seventh West Virginia Infantry: An Embattled Union Regiment from the Civil War's Most Divided State'
David W. Mellott, Mark A. Snell. The Seventh West Virginia Infantry: An Embattled Union Regiment from the Civil War's Most Divided State. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2019. pages cm. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-2753-0.
Reviewed by Christopher Rein (Air University Press, Maxwell AFB, AL) Published on H-CivWar (August, 2019) Commissioned by G. David Schieffler (Crowder College)
Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53706
David Mellott and Mark Snell’s comprehensively researched work on the Seventh West Virginia Infantry Regiment highlights the Civil War service of soldiers from an understudied region of the war who fought in the most significant campaigns in the eastern theater. Despite hailing from a remote region of a new state, the soldiers of the “Bloody Seventh” turned into something of a Forrest Gump of the Army of the Potomac, assaulting Bloody Lane at Antietam, holding a portion of Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg, and attacking the Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania. Their participation in each of these engagements wore the full regiment down to “a battalion of four companies” (p. 150), but levies from West Virginia coupled with a veterans’ furlough sustained the unit through Appomattox, highlighting the Confederacy’s inability to do the same. While, on most levels, a standard unit history of a somewhat atypical regiment (the regiment was the only one from the state to be listed as one of William Fox’s “Fighting 300,” with 14 percent of the soldiers losing their lives in the conflict), The Seventh West Virginia Infantry also sheds important light on dissent within the Confederacy and the shifting demographics in the new state of West Virginia.
The book is organized chronologically, beginning with West Virginia’s opposition to secession and the Confederacy, and early efforts to organize a new state from the western counties of old Virginia. It moves rapidly into the early campaigns for control of the state, setting the stage for the Seventh’s recruitment and muster into service. Union officials initially intended the regiment to protect the vulnerable line of the vital Baltimore and Ohio Railroad as it wound its way up the Potomac River toward the Ohio Valley, but events pulled the unit into the contest for Virginia proper, first in the Shenandoah Valley but eventually on the peninsula below Richmond. After suffering significant casualties at Antietam, from which “the Seventh would never fully recover” (p. 85), the regiment fought at Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and throughout the 1864 Overland Campaign, culminating with the Army of Northern Virginia’s surrender at Appomattox. A brief epilogue covers extant information from veterans’ postwar lives and efforts to commemorate the regiment’s significant service while suggesting that West Virginia was yet another venue where, having won the war, the Union lost the peace, as former Confederates migrated west into the Union state.
Alongside the standard official sources, both authors use their various talents to uncover personal stories from diaries, newspapers, and letters to paint a detailed portrait of a number of members of the regiment. Mellott, a descendant of several soldiers of the regiment, applies his legal training to unearth long-forgotten sources, while Snell leverages his considerable knowledge of the state and the conflict to provide greater depth and context (and, presumably, to smooth out the legal jargon, though one wishes the editors had mirrored the soldiers’ resolve in fighting against the passive voice!). The partnership generally works effectively, balancing detailed evidence with broader significance in telling the regiment’s story. But regimental history, to remain a useful format for understanding the war, must tell us something larger about the war itself, and the country as it endured the trial. The book begins promisingly, detailing the communities in the northwestern corner of the new state that raised companies for the regiment. However, by including that the regiment contained one company each from Ohio and Pennsylvania, as well as eight more, largely from the far-northern region of West Virginia between these two Union states, the authors blur the regiment’s regional identity. Was it a unit of Southern dissenters who tapped into backcountry resistance to the Tidewater elites that dated as far back as Bacon’s Rebellion to finally give Virginia’s Appalachian counties the representation they craved? Or was it a more typical Midwestern regiment, spawned from the new industrial and economic corridor created by the Baltimore and Ohio, as Kristen Wilkes’s recent research suggests? If the latter, what light could this shed on the story of West Virginia statehood? If the soldiers of the Seventh felt a stronger tie to the Union based on economic activity along the older canal, and new rail corridor, does that shift our interpretation of the West Virginia statehood movement from one of a “radical” revolution against slaveholding elites to a more “conservative” one (to borrow from Gordon Wood’s characterization in The Radicalism of the American Revolution ) by new elites in the extreme northern tier of West Virginia? While the authors provide much evidence to suggest the latter, the work focuses primarily on the regiment’s battlefield experiences, leaving these broader questions largely unanswered.
Still, Mellott and Snell have produced a first-rate regimental history that demonstrates the enduring value of military history in understanding the sectional conflict. By examining soldiers’ lives, experiences, and sacrifices, they reveal the broad opposition to the new Confederacy, even within regions nominally under secessionist control. While it remains unclear if the soldiers truly considered themselves “Southerners” or “Midwesterners,” by highlighting this dilemma, the authors force us to reconsider sectional identity in a contested borderland that is receiving increasing attention from scholars, and they extend this discussion geographically as far as the headwaters of the Ohio River. Thus, the work makes a substantial contribution to several fields, including regional and military history as well as the broader subfield of the Civil War, and will find a ready audience among both scholars in those areas of inquiry as well as among lay readers interested in the Civil War in general.
. Kristen Wilkes, “All Aboard: The Influence of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad on Sectionalism and Statehood in West Virginia,” presentation at the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies conference, “Microhistories of the Civil War Era,” June 1, 2019, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA.
Citation: Christopher Rein. Review of Mellott, David W.; Snell, Mark A., The Seventh West Virginia Infantry: An Embattled Union Regiment from the Civil War's Most Divided State. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. August, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53706This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.