PLUMB (ed.): Your Brother in Arms (2011)

Your Brother in Arms: A Union Soldier’s Odyssey edited by Robert C. Plumb. University of Missouri Press, 2011. Cloth, ISBN: 0826219209. $34.95.

In August 1862, nineteen year old George Pressly McClelland, the son of an immigrant carpenter, volunteered for the Union Army in his hometown of Pittsburgh. McClelland was soon named a sergeant in Company F, 155th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He and his comrades received their baptism of fire in the futile assaults against Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg, fought again at Chancellorsville, helped to defend Little Round Top on the second day at Gettysburg, and were in the thick of the fighting at Spotsylvania Court House. While performing his duties as company commander, McClelland took a Minie ball in his right foot at the North Anna. Following two months of convalescence, he returned to duty at Petersburg as a commissioned officer. Serving briefly as a staff officer in the Second Brigade, Griffin’s Division, Fifth Corps, McClelland rejoined his company and, the following year, fought at Dabney’s Mill, Hatcher’s Run, and Five Forks.

Editor Robert C. Plumb has built the present volume around forty-one of McClelland’s letters to sisters Annie and Lizzie. Plumb divides the letters into fifteen chapters, each featuring an introduction that situates events within a broader context. One, two, or three of McCelland’s letters are then presented in full, followed by Plumb’s analysis of their contents and the more traditional explanatory endnotes. Four maps, sixteen photographs and illustrations, and a bibliography round out the book.

Civil War specialists will take special interest in the letters themselves. Like the letters of almost any blue-coated soldier, food, rumors, camp conditions, family affairs, and frustrations with civilians who seemed only to be shirking their duty dominate McClelland’s correspondence. McClelland’s letters also reveal a fierce sense of comradeship. McClelland joined the army with fifteen other young men from Pittsburgh’s Fifth and Ninth wards. Throughout the war, he remained loyal to his pals. Frustrated with the length of his recuperation from the wound at North Anna, for example, he lamented, “I can’t feel contended, nor won’t be, until I am back with my boys” (201).

McClelland joined most of his comrades-in-arms in supporting President Abraham Lincoln. Initially, he had doubted the president’s ability. “Granny Lincoln,” wrote Sergeant McClelland in August 1862, “has again forgot the dignity of the President of a great republic” (13). But as the war continued, the soldier grew increasingly supportive of his president. “Tell [his oldest brother Thomas] to vote for Lincoln and not for the tool of unprincipled anti-Republican-liberty men,” he instructed a sister in September 1864. “Three-fourths of the Army will vote for Uncle Abe” (222). A month later, McClelland admonished her “not to decry our President…Look at his opponent [George B. McClellan], a man whose statesmanship consisted in superintending a third-rate railroad. Who, in his long connection with the Army, could not submit a plan of campaign” (233-34).

In his disdain for the “Little Napoleon,” McClelland differed from most soldiers in the Army of the Potomac. McClelland instead admired Joe Hooker, who had secured vegetables, soft bread, and furloughs for the rank and file during his stint as army commander. He steadfastly insisted that Hooker, whose “right arm is worth a thousand men” (130), had been robbed of a victory at Chancellorsville. George Meade, on the other hand, never earned McClelland’s faith – in large part because of his inattention to supply needs and his having let Robert E. Lee’s army “slip through his fingers” (114) after Gettysburg.

Perhaps out of a concern for his sisters, McClelland’s letters devoted relatively little attention to actual combat. Of Gettysburg, for instance, he focused on the problems caused by his having lost his knapsack, noting simply: “I ought to be thankful I did not lose my head on that terrible field of carnage” (117). Of his wound at North Anna, he reported: “the enemy succeeded in inflicting a slight wound” (199). In this light, he pressed his sisters to respect traditional spheres. “Your ideas are very good for the masculine gender, but have no application to frail femininity,” he admonished Lizzie (90). Describing his sister Annie, McClelland wrote: “The ‘Little Indefatigable’ hasn’t changed. I only wish she had a good husband instead of teaching 50 young ideas how to shoot” (170).

Ironically, Annie’s independence helped to save his life. George McClelland was seriously wounded in the left leg at Five Forks in April 1865. Although one surgeon assessed his condition as fatal, he lingered eighteen more days until Annie, having made her way from Pittsburgh to Petersburg, found her brother. There, she helped the doctors nurse George back to health; he was mustered out of military service on June 2, receiving a three-quarters disability pension and eventually a retroactive appointment to brevet major. Happily, McClelland went on to live a full life. He moved to Davenport, Iowa, married, became a civic leader, and left a large estate to his heirs upon his death in 1898. As this book demonstrates so well, George McClelland left his home a boy, but returned from the war a man.

Robert Wooster is Regents Professor of History at Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi, and the author of The American Military Frontiers: The United States Army in the West, 1783-1900 (2009).

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