Kirk on Lowenthal, 'A Yankee Regiment in Confederate Louisiana: The 31st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in the Gulf South'

Larry Lowenthal
Brianna Kirk

Larry Lowenthal. A Yankee Regiment in Confederate Louisiana: The 31st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in the Gulf South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2019. 360 pp. $48.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8071-7190-5.

Reviewed by Brianna Kirk (University of Virginia) Published on H-CivWar (July, 2020) Commissioned by G. David Schieffler (Crowder College)

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Larry Lowenthal’s A Yankee Regiment in Confederate Louisiana tells the story of the 31st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which served most of the American Civil War in Louisiana and the Gulf region. The regiment is credited as the first Union regiment to enter New Orleans after its capture and the Confederate evacuation in 1862. It also served in a variety of roles—as infantry, mounted infantry, and cavalry—and fought guerrillas in the Louisiana bayous. Yet its relatively unique story of dignified service never made it into the pages of an official regimental history, as the men of the 31st never succeeded in writing one. Despite their late start in beginning a veterans’ association, they diligently collected material, conducted interviews, and amassed accounts to write a detailed account of their service. But the old veterans, including the regimental historian, began passing away before anything could be published.

Lowenthal, a former National Park Service historian, set out to accomplish what the men of the 31st Massachusetts did not—to write the history of the oft-forgotten Massachusetts regiment whose Civil War service has typically evoked criticism. After the discovery of unprocessed diaries, manuscripts, and personal reminiscences in the Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History in 2013, Lowenthal committed to writing a “modern Civil War regimental history,” one that would benefit from the abundance of modern scholarship and interpretations.[1] Writing the regimental history now, instead of in the late nineteenth century, would also likely remove any personal bias that modern historians often find plague Civil War regimental histories and allow him to take a more “balanced perspective” on many issues that would have generated “political controversies” among Civil War veterans (pp. xii-xiii).

Lowenthal’s methodology and source base for this modern regimental history are fascinating. He draws largely from these unpublished and unprocessed manuscript collections, boxes of material which had been collected by the regiment’s designated historian, L. Frederick Rice. Chronology drives Lowenthal’s account of the 31st Massachusetts from their inception in 1861 to their journey south to Louisiana to their service in the Gulf. Broken down into chapters that cover several months at a time, this narrative structure allows readers to immerse themselves in the soldiers’ lives and to experience the flow of their service alongside the men. Beginning with Benjamin Butler’s recruitment of New Englanders to serve in the Union Army, Lowenthal traces how controversy plagued the 31st Massachusetts from the start and continued through its service in Louisiana. An ongoing feud between Butler and Massachusetts governor John A. Andrew—prompted initially by Butler’s recruitment efforts and his insistence on appointing officers to those regiments—was felt throughout the ranks of the 31st well into the war, as the men began to question why they had not seen any major combat by the end of 1862. Despite the honor of being the first Union troops to set foot in New Orleans after the Union gained possession of the city in 1862, the 31st Massachusetts found their regiment split up and relegated to coastal defense at Fort Pike, Fort Jackson, and defending the rail lines to Jackson, Mississippi, at Kennerville (now Kenner).

One of the most unique aspects of the 31st Massachusetts Regiment was the variety of service they saw. Throughout the Civil War, these men took on the role of infantry, mounted infantry, and cavalry. They found themselves on guard duty, took part in siege warfare, and fought guerrillas. The pace at which Lowenthal tells the 31st Massachusetts’s story accelerates as he begins describing their involvement in the lead-up and attack on Port Hudson, Louisiana, and continues with his account of their participation in the Red River Campaign in early to mid-1864. In both of these instances, Lowenthal’s reliance on these newly acquired diaries and personal papers increases, providing more rounded accounts of the soldiers’ experiences that texturize the reader's understanding of these moments. It is in these chapters that Lowenthal provides a much richer analysis of what the men of the 31st wrote and why. Examples of their personal views on race, emancipation, African American soldiers, and occupation come through, although including more accounts would have reinforced that analysis more. Even more so, it becomes evident that this regiment in particular recognized—perhaps because of their limited exposure to combat or because of their somewhat jaded view of their service—that their involvement in the Gulf region was “little more than a distraction” to the overall war effort compared to the campaigns in the East, and that the war “would be decided far to the east of the Mississippi” (p. 187).

Writing a “modern regimental history” is a notable task, especially when relying heavily on unpublished material gathered by the regiment’s members themselves. Lowenthal does leave some to be desired, especially connections to current scholarship. For example, his discussion of soldier opinions and views on race in the chapter covering the first half of 1863 offers a great opportunity to connect the soldiers’ words to recent works on Union soldiers and their changing attitudes toward emancipation, or how conceptions of their masculinity shifted with experiencing no major combat compared to their counterparts in the East.[2] Though there are hints of these throughout, more explicit connections to larger trends currently seen in the field of Civil War history are needed. Lowenthal does a nice job of integrating the soldiers’ own words into a seamless descriptive narrative, but at many places—especially in the chapters on Port Hudson and the Red River campaign—allowing the soldiers to speak for themselves even more would have been a bonus.

Lastly, a final chapter taking the regiment from wartime service into the Reconstruction and Gilded Age years—the prime time for regimental histories—would have provided a fitting end to Lowenthal’s story, and the absence of such a chapter leaves readers curious about what happened after the war’s conclusion. When did Rice, the regiment’s historian, acquire the majority of accounts on which Lowenthal’s story is based? What was the process like for Lowenthal as he wrote this, and what different shape does he think the history would have taken had Rice accomplished his task? A reflective end to this creative and interesting project would have been welcomed.

Lowenthal breathes life into the men of the 31st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and provides a captivating account of a regiment that did not claim many crowning achievements like other Massachusetts regiments did. But the disappointments and neglect felt in their own time does not mean they should continue to be forgotten today, as their service, experiences, and opinions of the Civil War world in which they lived lend important insight into soldier experiences that historians now and in the future will continue to investigate. A Yankee Regiment in Confederate Louisiana succeeds in revealing ways modern historians can still benefit from Civil War regimental histories, even from a distance of over one hundred and fifty years later.


[1]. To explore these collections, see the website created by Lowenthal and others to highlight their source base:

[2]. For more on Union soldiers' motivation, see Bell Irvin Wiley, The Life of Billy Yank (Indianapolis, IN: Charter Books, 1952); Gary W. Gallagher, The Union War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011); James McPhersonFor Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); Peter S. Carmichael, The War for the Common Soldier: How Men Thought, Fought, and Survived in Civil War Armies (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018); and Chandra Manning, What this Cruel War was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War (New York: Knopf, 2007). For more on gender and masculinity in the Union Army, see Lorien Foote, The Gentlemen and the Roughs: Violence, Honor, and Manhood in the Union Army (New York: New York University Press, 2010).

Citation: Brianna Kirk. Review of Lowenthal, Larry, A Yankee Regiment in Confederate Louisiana: The 31st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in the Gulf South. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. July, 2020. URL:

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