Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Regimental Biographies

You have probably already figured this out, but I spend a great deal of time thinking about regimental histories, or regimental biographies. Maybe it was all those year reenacting, or maybe…. Anyway, I’ve come across two different thoughts on regimental histories in the past twenty-four hours that might lead to some interesting discussion.

Last evening I started reading Richard Reid’s Freedom for Themselves: North Carolina’s Black Soldiers in the Civil War Era (UNC Press, 2008). In the introduction, Reid writes about the need and the process of creating what he calls “regimental biographies”: “The process of selecting a regiment to study and the act of writing the subsequent history runs the risk of bias. It almost inevitably favors the regiments whose ranks teemed with heroes created at critical junctures of the Civil War and whose battle flags carried the names of the war’s most famous engagements. Less studied are the units that broke at the first sound of musket fire or who saw little fighting…” (xiv)

Nick Kurtz, over at the blog Battlefield Wanderings, also discusses regimental histories in a recent post. Kurtz wonders if regimental histories “Should… be…. going forward… only… for regiments that did something extraordinary or whose service was unique? Or that fill a gap in the historiography?” And, “So is the goal of regimental histories to eventually fill in all the gaps so that every unit in every major army has a regimental history? And in this endeavor the Eastern Theater is well ahead and widens its gap every year.”

I would argue that every regiment is unique in some form or fashion. The 37th North Carolina lost more men (dead) than any other Tar Heel regiment; the 58th North Carolina was the largest Tar Heel regiment and lost more to desertion; the 26th North Carolina was Governor’s Vance’s regiment, and lost more men at Gettysburg; the 18th North Carolina mortally wounded Jackson; the 29th North Carolina suffered heavily at Murfreesboro; the 51st North Carolina repelled the attack at Battery Wagner; the 16th North Carolina was the first regiment raised in western North Carolina; Thomas's Legion was a mixture of whites and Cherokee Indians; the 1st North Carolina Volunteers fought (and won) the first land battle of the war… This list could go on and on.

So what do you think? Do regimental biographies only need to cover the regiments whose service might be deemed extraordinary (and what is the definition of extraordinary) or do they all need histories?

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Mike,

The vast majority of my research and writing focuses on soldiers as individuals at the company or regimental level. When you start talking about brigades, divisions, corps...it's easy for the individuals to become faceless. Each one had their own story to tell, their own experiences. They give a flavor to regimental histories that is lost in those books dealing with battles or campaigns. So while we must take those original histories drafted by the veterans with a grain of salt, today we're in a position to craft more balanced regimental histories. That being said, I think whether they were on active campaign or spent their service doing mundane guard duty, each regiment deserves fair treatment, be it 50 or 350 pages. - JE

Michael Hardy said...

Thanks for the comment, JE. I feel the same way. Every regiment needs or deserves a fair treatment of some type. What irks me to no end are sloppy projects. There was a recent regimental that someone was doing for a group on whom I had collected considerable information, which I passed on to the person. Some of this information was just sources that needed to be looked up, and I was told by the person writing the book that he/she would not have time to get to all of these. Why write the book? There will always be things that are missed to begin with…

Robert said...

I would agree that every regiment deserves its due. It seems in many ways just a matter of luck (good or bad depending on your view) as to whether a regiment ended up doing something "important". What's important to one person may not be to the next. In addition, there are still important nuggets waiting to be found. That unexplored regiment may just have a few of them. I think this becomes even more important with the explosion of the genealogy hobby. Serious hobbyists wish to know as much as possible about their ancestors but they themselves may not be or want to be writers. It's up to those with a serious devotion to put forth and publish their research.

Michael, I agree that poor or sloppy research has no place in the world. It's sad when you willingly hand over valuable and time consuming research and leads only to have it ignored.

Michael Hardy said...

Thanks for the comments, Robert. Interesting take on genealogist. At a book singing a couple of weeks ago, I had someone who did not want to buy the 58th NCT book because there was not loads of information about her ancestor. While I use genealogist, and go through family histories to find information, I don’t write from a genealogist’s point of view. If I included every little fact about every person, no one would be able to afford the book. The book on the 58th NCT was already 125,000 words, but had I included the genealogical information, it would have been 300,000 words, at least. So, I think when I start my next regimental that I will come up with some type of disclaimer….

As an aside, the lady who was upset did have a fantastic story about her 58th NCT ancestor. He had deserted and was captured. The story would have made the book. She did come back later and buy two books.

Jeff said...

Michael,
I feel they all should have their story told, because sometimes Clark's Regiments series just isn't enough. My ancestor was in the 40th North Carolina (3rd NC Artillery) manning the defenses of Wilmington for the majority of the war. I would never have given a thought to those troops if not for my ancestor. So yes, those garrison guys as well as the battle hardened vets need their stories told. I myself am working on Ramseur's North Carolina Brigade.

NCMeekins said...

I would advocate for as much information as we can muster for any of these men/ groups. In fact, I see a need for a company-level history when you get such units as Spencer's Rangers in Hyde County or Whitford's 67th before it was the 67th - even the Edenton Bell Battery. Those unassigned or detached companies need histories IMHO. I would argue that the 1st NC Union Vols operate as separate companies more than as a regiment - just like their guerrilla counter-parts who become the 68th. Of course, I am also loco enough to believe every soldier deserves a headstone...

Robert said...

Hi Michael,

I guess I'm making an assumption that genealogists would be interested in a regimental history that dealt with their ancestors regiment whether great great grandpa is listed or not. Maybe I am wrong. I agree you can't include everything in your writing. Most genealogical information doesn't have any real bearing on a regimental history anyhow.

Michael Hardy said...

Jeff – Clark’s is a great place to start, as long as we remember that it was written 40 some odd years after the events.

Chris – I agree – every solder needs a headstone. As far as those independent companies, I’ve been working on expanding what I wrote in the 58th NCT book on Vance’s Legion, a organization that never even existed. We’ll see where that goes.

Robert – I would agree that most people would simply want a book that detailed the role that their ancestor’s regiment played in the war. But this is not the first time I have encounter the problem detailed above. When working on the books about the 37th NCT, I had a lady send me detailed accounts of her ancestors. She was upset that they did not appear verbatim in the book when it was published. I tried to explain that most of the information that she sent was about men not in the 37th NCT, but alas, it was a losing battle.