Roundtable: Our Favorite Civil War Regiments

After a long Thanksgiving break, we're kicking it back into high gear here at Civil Discourse. We've been slacking as of late for a variety of reasons--the holidays, research, dissertations, work--but we're doubling back down to finish off 2016 with a round of hopefully thoughtful, compelling, and fun posts.

We're shaking off our November doldrums by asking our authors our latest Roundtable question:

What Civil War regiment most interests you? Why?

Anyone who spends anytime studying the war quickly learns that regiments stood at the heart of most Civil War armies. Generally comprised of 1,000 men initially, and inevitably fewer in number after a few months campaigning, regiments were raised from nearly every state and territory within the Union and the Confederacy. Regiments were often diverse: there were regiments comprised entirely of foreign immigrants, Native-Americans, African-Americans, and Hispanics. College boys, lawyers, doctors, and professors might form the backbone of one regiment, while farmers, blacksmiths, and laborers might constitute another. Regiments were often raised out of patriotic zeal in the crazed months of 1861 and the grim determination of 1862. Yet regiments were also born from those who feared being drafted and from those who were drafted. Some regiments saw service in the East, some in the West, some beyond the Mississippi. A few regiments even saw combat in all three theaters. Wherever they fought, and however extensive or brief their experiences in combat, soldiers usually took pride in their regiments, a pride that often extended far beyond the war's conclusion in 1865. In sum, regiments were the embodiment of the individual men who fought for North and South, and the diversity of Civil War regiments speaks to the diversity of the men themselves and the war they fought.

All of our bloggers possess extensive experience studying the Civil War and, more specifically, spending time visiting and interpreting both the war's battlefields and its participants. We've all become familiar with countless regiments, but from the many we've encountered, a few have stuck out. Here are some of our authors favorite regiments.

Becky Oakes

The power of a personal connection. It is intangible, sometimes unexplainable, yet integral to understanding how people engage with the Civil War. It is what gives us our favorite generals, our favorite places, and our favorite stories. Unsurprisingly, personal connection is exactly how I approached determining my favorite regiment.

Throughout my work in academia and public history, I’ve been given the opportunity to learn about the people, the battles, and the service that together make up the story of a regiment. But when given this prompt, the two that immediately sprung to mind were the two with which I share the deepest personal connection: the 13th Pennsylvania Reserves and the 20th Massachusetts.

My connection to the first is much more linear. My ancestor, Cordello Collins, was an enlisted man in Company D of what is popularly known as the “Bucktail Regiment.” The son of a blacksmith, Cordello hailed from a very small village called Kinzua in the forests of Warren County, Pennsylvania, an area where my family lived well into the twentieth century. In addition to being connected by blood, we are also connected by battlefield geography: one of Collins’ major actions was at the Battle of Fredericksburg, where I now work, and he was mortally wounded on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, where I lived and studied for four years. That Cordello left behind letters made the connection even deeper.

Henry livermore Abbott, 20th Massachusetts "The Harvard Regiment"

Henry livermore Abbott, 20th Massachusetts "The Harvard Regiment"

My interest in the 13th PA is certainly through the lens of the “ancestor phenomenon.” Every time a visitor at the park has an ancestor who fought at Prospect Hill, I feel a sense of kinship. When I found a first edition copy of the regimental history in a used book store, I was beyond excited to share it with my family. I’ve caught myself emphatically referring to the 13th as the “real” Bucktails. Not “original,” but “real,” as though the 149th Pennsylvania was a mass collective delusion on behalf of the Army of the Potomac. My ownership of their story is much less about what I know than it is about what I feel.

My fascination with the 20th Massachusetts began very differently: by choice. I have no ancestral ties to the regiment, and before my senior year of college, I had no real personal ties to it either. But during a seminar on the Civil War, I was given the task of writing a micro-history based on the writings of an individual. Recognizing his regiment from their participation in the street-fighting at the Battle of Fredericksburg, I picked up Henry Livermore Abbott’s letters. And through those words, the Harvard Regiment came alive.

The regiment itself is enough to capture interest. A fighting unit that was almost chronically in a tight spot, the Harvard Regiment was certainly not lacking in soldiers of distinguished service. The class differences between the Harvard educated officers and the working class enlisted men, many of them immigrants, is a worthwhile cultural study alone. But it was learning about the regiment, the battles they fought in, and the people he fought with through the eyes of Abbott that made it stand out as a “favorite” of mine. I was touched as he described his comrades as brothers, and over time, he began to seem strangely familial as well. Today, I am just as excited by mentions of the 20th Massachusetts as I am by the 13th PA Reserves, even if I do not fully understand why. 

Cordello Collins and Henry Abbott were incredibly different people. One, a laborer turned private from the wilds of Pennsylvania, just trying to feed his family. The other, a Harvard-educated officer from a prominent New England family, trying to prove himself. But they also had similarities. They both joined the army young. They both died young, giving their lives for the Union. They both left behind their words. And both of their words helped to shape me.

Katie Thompson

More often than not, an interest in a particular regiment stems from a personal connection or ancestry to that unit. Being the result of more recent immigration, I do not have ancestors who fought on either side of the Civil War. I also came to the Civil War later than some, being more interested in the American Revolution until high school and college. But I do have a favorite regiment: the 124th New York “Orange Blossoms.”

Monument in Goshen, NY to the 124th New york, "the Orange Blossoms"

Monument in Goshen, NY to the 124th New york, "the Orange Blossoms"

My interest in the 124th New York began largely because it was the unit formed and recruited in my local area. In high school, I began noticing that someone put a small American flag every Memorial Day at the base on one headstone in our very small church graveyard, and on investigating discovered that it was the grave of a 124th veteran. In addition, there is a large statue to the 124th in the neighboring town of Goshen that I happened to take my driving test under. On my first visit to Gettysburg in eighth grade, the guide asked us if we had a particular unit we wanted to follow and my mom suggested the 124th because it was from our area. So, my awareness of the unit gradually grew as I became more and more interested in history and the Civil War.

Once I started on the path to becoming a Civil War historian, the 124th New York naturally became my “favorite” unit. Having no soldier ancestor, it became the go-to answer when anyone asked what regiment I had a connection to. Moreover, the 124th has a neat history. They were mustered in the summer of 1862 and fought in all the major eastern campaigns from Fredericksburg through to the surrender at Appomattox and they were engaged at some crucial places (the May 3rdfight at Chancellorsville and Devil’s Den at Gettysburg, for example). It was a very hard fought unit, losing a great number of its men to the hardships of war and battle. Many think that Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage is based partially on the 124th's experiences at Chancellorsville because Crane was living in that area of New York, and presumably talking to veterans, while he was writing the book.

So, in the end, my connection to the 124th New York is one of local history rather than family ties. The presence in monuments and small reminders of this unit within my local community made me aware of the 124th and my attachment to the regiment grew as I became more interested in the Civil War. The “Orange Blossoms” are a more well-known unit and there are two regimental histories published on the regiment, however, I would love to see in the future a study of how the war also affected my home region of Orange County, New York through the enlistment, wounding, and deaths of the men in the 124th New York. I think that a new breed of regimental histories can emerge from the current trend of soldier studies that explore the connections between the homefront and frontlines while also telling the military history of the unit.

Zac Cowsert

I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit I don't have a favorite Civil War regiment. In general, I study the Trans-Mississippi South, and I am usually quite partial to any regiment (Confederate or Southern Unionist) hailing from that region. Most of my time is spent with wild Texas and Indian cavalry, along with the occasional Arkansas infantry regiment.

All of which makes my selection for this roundtable question even more odd. Over the past few years, I've become deeply interested in the 2nd Ohio Cavalry, a Yankee regiment of all things. I first encountered the 2nd Ohio while researching for my dissertation, and what immediately struck me about the 2nd Ohio was the absolutely voluminous written record they left behind. Honestly, I'm not sure I've encountered a single Civil War regiment with as much documentation as these Ohio lads. By my last count, there are at least seventeen diaries, memoirs, reminiscences, manuscripts, and other primary sources left by the 2nd Ohio's troopers. In total, it accounts for hundreds of letters written and hundreds of pages printed.

Henry C. Whipple, 2nd Ohio Cavalry. Pictured Here in 1862 when the 2nd was in Indian terr. and Kansas. His parents didn't recognize him in this portrait.

Henry C. Whipple, 2nd Ohio Cavalry. Pictured Here in 1862 when the 2nd was in Indian terr. and Kansas. His parents didn't recognize him in this portrait.

It is fortunate that the 2nd left behind such gratuitous writings, for their story is a unique one. Raised in the autumn of 1861, with many Oberlin College graduates in its ranks, the 2nd Ohio was first sent to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where they spent 1862 battling Missouri guerrillas, Cherokee raiders, and the harsh Western elements throughout Kansas, Indian Territory, and Missouri. In the winter of 1862-'63, the regiment returned to Ohio to rest and refit. Yet this relatively peaceful time in the regiment's tenure was also marked by an organized attack by the Ohio troopers on a Democratic Copperhead newspaper in Columbus, The Crisis. The regiment could not remain preoccupied with homefront politics for long, however, as Confederate raiders under John Hunt Morgan swept through Indiana and Ohio in the summer of 1863. The 2nd Ohio helped defend their home state and chase Morgan down, helping capture the illustrious raider in July. Shortly thereafter, they were sent to East Tennessee and participated the Knoxville Campaign, assisting Ambrose Burnside in keeping the Unionist region in Federal hands. Much of the regiment reenlisted in January, 1864, and the Ohio boys were sent east. They fought with Ulysses S. Grant at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania and with Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley and at Cedar Creek. Indeed, in the autumn of 1864, six troopers of the 2nd Ohio Cavalry won the Medal of Honor for their bravery in battle. The 2nd Ohio chased Robert E. Lee's disintegrating army all the way to Appomattox Courthouse and the end of the Civil War in the spring of 1865. After participating in the Grand Review of Armies in Washington D.C. in May, they spent another five months on garrison duty before mustering out in October, 1865. After the war, the 2nd Ohio rightly remembered and celebrated its exploits via a very active regimental association.

Over the course of the Civil War, the 2nd Ohio Cavalry participated in over nearly two dozen engagements in all three theaters of the war: the East, the West, and Trans-Mississippi. One might very well add a fourth theater, the Northern homefront, which the Ohio troopers both attacked and defended. Along the way, its troopers garnered six Medals of Honor. Frankly, it is a remarkable regiment with a remarkable story, from which the war can be explored from multiple vantage points. For me personally, the bountiful writings of the 2nd's troopers have proved a great boon in shedding light on Indian Territory in 1862. Yet this regiment's extraordinary experiences merit further attention--if ever a unit called for a proper, scholarly regimental history, it is the 2nd Ohio Cavalry. Perhaps I'll find the time to tell the tale post-dissertation; perhaps some other fine scholar will take up the task. Regardless, the 2nd Ohio's constantly changing scenery, hard campaigning, and plentiful sources make it a particularly fascinating regiment.

Having shared some of our favorite regiments, what are some of yours? We'd love to hear from you! Feel free to comment below with your favorite regiment, and what makes them special to you!

You can check out our earlier Roundtable posts here.

Becky Oakes, a graduate of Gettysburg College, received her master’s degree in 19th-century U.S. History and Public History from West Virginia University.  She is an historian at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, and is continuing her education by pursuing her PhD, also at WVU. Becky’s research focuses on Civil War memory and cultural heritage tourism, specifically the development of built commemorative environments. 

Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated from Siena College in May 2010 with a B.A. in History and a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies.  She earned her M.A. in History from West Virginia University in May 2012.  Her thesis “A Question of Life or Death: Suicide and Survival in the Union Army” examines wartime suicide among Union soldiers, its causes, and the reasons that army saw a relatively low suicide rate.  She is currently pursuing her PhD at West Virginia University with research on mental trauma in the Civil War.  In addition, Kathleen has been a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park since 2010 and has worked on various other publications and projects.

Zac Cowsert currently studies 19th-century U.S. history as a doctoral student at West Virginia University, where he also received his master's degree.  He earned his bachelor's degree in history and political science at Centenary College of Louisiana, a small liberal-arts college in Shreveport.  Zac's research focuses on the involvement and experiences of the Five Tribes of Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) during the American Civil War. He has worked for the National Park Service at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park.