Duchess on Ward, 'The 96th Pennsylvania Volunteers in the Civil War'

Author: 
David A. Ward
Reviewer: 
Eric Duchess

David A. Ward. The 96th Pennsylvania Volunteers in the Civil War. Jefferson: McFarland, 2018. 343 pp. $39.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4766-6851-2.

Reviewed by Eric Duchess (Finger Lakes Community College, Canandaigua, NY) Published on H-Pennsylvania (August, 2019) Commissioned by Jeanine Mazak-Kahne (Indiana University of Pennsylvania)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53153

David Ward, a long-time independent Civil War historian, has produced a well-written and thoroughly researched regimental history that is sure to please students and scholars of that conflict, as well as military historians and enthusiasts generally. The 96th Pennsylvania Volunteers in the Civil War represents a valuable addition to the scholarly coverage of the lives and experiences of Union combat soldiers during America’s costliest war. In a crisp, well-organized fashion, Ward escorts his readers through the regiment’s entire life span, from its roots in the ninety-day volunteer units and its recruitment largely from the coal-mining communities of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, to training and drill in camp, deployment to the eastern theater of operations, their campaigns and battles, and finally to the regiment’s mustering out in the autumn of 1864. 

During its three-year service term, the 96th Pennsylvania Volunteers participated in many of the eastern theater’s major campaigns, including the Peninsula, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Overland campaigns, transforming themselves in the process from an inexperienced batch of novices to a battle-hardened team of veterans. Using extensive archival and other primary sources, particularly newspapers, letters, and diaries, Ward recaptures the flavor and spirit that animated this regiment’s officers and men. Much of the 96th Volunteers’ experience was commonplace to infantry units on both sides, including the hardships and exhaustion of life on campaign, the rigors and terrors of battle, the ups and downs of morale, and periods of relentless boredom, particularly during winter encampment. But Ward also highlights and traces an unfortunate characteristic that plagued the regiment throughout its existence, namely the deep and bitter factional disputes between its own officers. For instance, the regiment’s first commander, Colonel Henry Cake, who acquitted himself fairly well on the battlefield, took a highly politicized approach with his command duties and prerogatives within the regiment, even running for Pennsylvania state senate while the regiment was initially forming in late 1861, much to the ire of his second-in-command. Cake also gave special treatment to the regimental sutler, who was one of Cake’s erstwhile political allies in Schuylkill County, which also divided his officers. Indeed, Cake’s ultimate successor, Lt. Colonel William Lessig, also a capable combat commander, continued Cake’s tradition of political manipulation within the regiment, such as his unsuccessful attempt to have his supporters promoted over rival officers with more seniority.  The problem of factionalism among the regiment’s officers raises the question of the extent to which this impacted the enlisted men, and to what extent these problems existed in other regiments.

Although the book is largely based on a traditional military history approach by emphasizing military and battlefield affairs, Ward deftly includes some analysis in accordance with the so-called new military history, where attention is given to the social, economic, and political contexts between military systems and the societies that produced them. Like most regiments in both armies, recruits were largely drawn from the same geographic region, which in the 96th’s case was the anthracite coal regions of Schuylkill County in eastern Pennsylvania, and both native-born and immigrant men volunteered for service in rates roughly proportional to their local demographics. 

Ward also briefly examines the motives for volunteer service in the 96th, finding them largely congruent with the mixtures discussed by other scholars who find a variety of simultaneous motivations, including patriotism, a sense of personal duty and honor, peer pressure, and even the simple hope for a grand adventure. Ward delves into the soldiers’ attitudes towards slavery and blacks, demonstrating that while the men of the 96th came to support emancipation as a wartime necessity, this did not erase lingering disdain or even outright animosity. Furthermore, Ward argues that the political infighting on the Union home front did not escape the attention of men serving in the 96th Volunteer Infantry, and although a significant number of the regiment’s soldiers, particularly the Irish and Germans, hailed from staunchly Democratic precincts, they came to generally agree that Democratic political victories were detrimental to the fortunes of war, and many developed a strong attachment to the Republicans and disdain for the so-called Copperheads, whose support for the war effort was seen as questionable at best.

It is worth noting that Ward’s chapter endnotes not only provide the requisite citation information, but frequently offer additional details, explanations, and even suggestions for further readings to the point in question. Although this book is aimed primarily at military historians and enthusiasts, particularly those interested in the American Civil War, other readers can certainly understand and appreciate its narrative and analyses. Regardless of one’s familiarity with Civil War armies, battles, campaigns, and soldiers, readers will find this book to be a worthwhile investment of their time and energies.

Citation: Eric Duchess. Review of Ward, David A., The 96th Pennsylvania Volunteers in the Civil War. H-Pennsylvania, H-Net Reviews. August, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53153

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