The 4th Michigan Infantry in the Civil War by Martin N. Bershera and Kim Crawford. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2010. Cloth, ISBN 978-0870139734. $44.95.
Since the turn towards social and cultural history in the 1960s and 1970s, many academic institutions have relegated military history to the virtual back burner of “serious” scholarly endeavors. Military histories have, however, remained popular with general readers, and have recently regained scholarly credibility within academia. One reason for this has been a shift of focus from strategies and tactics to the overall experience of common soldiers. It is in this milieu that Martin N. Bertera and Kim Crawford introduce The 4th Michigan Infantry in the Civil War, a vivid regimental narrative that proposes to reach beyond a mere “recitation of marches and maneuvers” to provide a history of Union soldiers that is both “human and personal” (vii). The authors adeptly employ numerous letters, memoirs, official reports, and newspaper accounts—many of which are held in private collections—to create a chronological illustration of essentially every conceivable aspect of the 4th Michigan Infantry’s existence, from enlistment and mustering in 1861 to the reorganized regiment’s deployment to Texas until 1866, a year after General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox.
Although Bertera and Crawford’s study is definitely aimed toward a general readership, it will interest and prove useful to scholars as well. The regiment, situated for the greater part of the Civil War within the V Corps of the Army of the Potomac, participated in many of the most notable battles in the eastern theater. Kim Crawford’s journalistic background is evident as she and Bertera objectively portray both the heroic and the sordid qualities of the Michigan volunteers. With a refreshing absence of melodrama, the authors seamlessly juxtapose scenes of gallantry, as when Colonel Harrison Jeffords risked and lost his life to maintain the regimental colors at Gettysburg, with pictures of cowardice and greed—soldiers looting private farms, and Machiavellian officers jockeying for promotion. Along with detailed descriptions of every battle in which the regiment engaged, depictions of the more “mundane” activities of camp life, such as baseball games and pranks involving innovative uses of gunpowder, add context and texture, creating a more complete picture of soldierly life than some traditional military histories. Another fascinating point the authors note was the presence of female soldiers, disguised in male garb, fighting within the 4th Michigan through at least the first two years of the war; one enlisted man remarked on the women’s skill and ruthlessness in battle, and their fierce desire to crush the southern rebellion. Amazingly, one theretofore undetected soldier gave birth while on picket duty.
Bertera and Crawford also draw particular attention to the rank and file’s constant judgment of their military and political leadership, and explain how these perceptions were informed by the soldiers’ own social backgrounds and political leanings. While many regiment members during the first year of conflict criticized General George McClellan for not attacking the Confederates more vigorously, others staunchly defended McClellan and railed against “radical” Republicans and the media for their stricture of the commander. Quotes from various soldiers supporting or criticizing individual leaders reveal deep divisions among the regiment as to the goals of the war, and the necessary strategies. While many men in November 1862 accepted a change of leadership as appropriate, Private Edward “Ned” Taylor, a “War Democrat” who despised abolitionists and protested against the notion of accepting African-American troops into the army, reacted to President Lincoln’s removal of McClellan by writing, “one could wish the Army turned loose upon the North, for there are our worst enemies” (111).
Although the utilization of primary source material is commendable and often advantageous in recreating the soldier’s life, Bertera and Crawford’s decision to avoid incorporating more analytical and interpretive secondary literature poses serious limitations to their account. For instance, they maintain that the vast majority of white northern volunteers enlisted out of their desire to “preserve the Union,” and that slavery was either a non-factor, or a marginal concern at best. This assessment, however, rings somewhat simplistic since the authors make little attempt to explain just what the notion of “Union” symbolized to northern citizens, especially in the context of the mid-nineteenth century. Bertera and Crawford could have refined and enriched their analysis by integrating the theories of Elizabeth Varon, who in her recent work, Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 (2008), argued that since the founding of the United States, the specter of “disunion” had hovered as a persistent apprehension, which many feared would unleash anarchy and render mankind’s last hope for republican self-government an utter failure. Furthermore, notable historians such as James McPherson, Chandra Manning, and Stephen Berry have provided ample evidence to demonstrate that culture-dependent, religiously inspired, and highly gendered ideologies all nourished the roots of Civil War soldiers’ motivations—i.e., what they fought for.
Despite Bertera and Crawford’s admirable attempt to outline the complicated ordeals of individual servicemen, an additional shortcoming stems from the authors’ sole focus on the “active” portion of the regiment. While they describe innumerable injuries and maimings suffered during combat, the injured and maimed themselves, once separated from the regiment, scarcely make a peep. Although the authors briefly refer to medical treatments, for a complete portrayal of the Civil War soldier’s plight, surely a thorough representation of their subjection to quasi-medieval surgical procedures and the subsequent convalescence—for those fortunate enough to survive treatment—should play an increased role. In this narrative, however, those too badly wounded for return to duty are almost as silent as the dead.
Even considering these significant drawbacks, The 4th Michigan Infantry in the Civil War is a valuable addition to a field about which, considering the amount of existing scholarship, it would seem everything worth saying has already been said. Bertera and Crawford do glean valuable insights from a rich supply of primary material, and their felicitous prose will engage general readers and military buffs alike. Furthermore, scholars will find a veritable treasure trove of useful quotes and details for most aspects of enlisted soldiers’ and lesser-known officers’ trials throughout the conflict.