The 96thPennsylvania Volunteers in the Civil War by David A. Ward. McFarland & Company, 2018. Paper, ISBN: 978-1476668512. $39.95.
In the Civil War’s immediate aftermath, Francis B. Wallace, a Union veteran from Pottsville, Pennsylvania, and associate editor of the Miner’s Journal, believed that the service and sacrifice of men from Schuylkill County needed to be appropriately recorded. Wallace’s desire to “record… the work of Schuylkill County in the good cause” resulted in a massive 550-page tome, Memorial of the Patriotism of Schuylkill County in the American Slaveholder’s Rebellion. Since the release of Wallace’s history in late 1865, some of the regiments chronicled in it (most notably the 48th Pennsylvania) have received significant attention; however, other regiments that came from Schuylkill County have slipped into obscurity, among them the 96th Pennsylvania Infantry—a regiment which experienced significant action between 1862-1864 as part of the Army of the Potomac’s Sixth Corps.
Now, 155 years after the 96th Pennsylvania mustered out of service, historian David A. Ward has given the unit—one of William Freeman Fox’s “Three Hundred Fighting Regiments”—proper recognition with this thoroughly researched and finely crafted volume.
Ward, perhaps best known in the Civil War community for his battlefield tour company, promises in the volume’s opening pages to examine not only the “organization, operations and characters of the 96th Pennsylvania,” but to emphasize the “social life and customs of the enlisted men” and “examine the regiment… as a subset of the Pennsylvania community they represented” (5). The author delivers on that promise throughout the book’s fourteen chapters.
In addition to discussing the regiment’s organization, demographics, and the backgrounds of the officers who would lead the regiment (men such as Henry Cake and Jacob Frick), the author does a superb job of chronicling the engagements in which the regiment fought. From the 96th’s first significant action at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill in June 1862 through the Third Battle of Winchester in September 1864, Ward masterfully analyzes the role the regiment played in each of those fights. But Ward’s history goes beyond mere tactical discussions of the regiment’s involvement in specific battles; indeed, the author examines how these engagements impacted the unit’s members emotionally and physically.
Beyond Ward’s impressive recounting of the 96th Pennsylvania’s battlefield exploits, he addresses how the regiment coped with the hardships of soldier life—and how the war left a lasting impression on the men. For example, on December 13, 1861, the regiment had its first encounter with military justice when a firing squad executed Private William Johnson, 1st New York Lincoln Cavalry, for attempting to escape to the enemy. Ward notes how Johnson’s execution “received considerable coverage by the soldiers of the 96th Pennsylvania in their private letters and diaries,” as the soldiers tried to make sense of the horrifying spectacle (27).
Additionally, Ward’s regimental history offers meaningful insights into how the 96th’s veterans reacted to such important wartime measures as President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Ward carefully points out that varying attitudes existed among the 96th’s rank and file about the measure. Some despised it outright, while others, like Captain Jacob Haas, only supported it if it would mean a speedier end to the conflict; those like Erasmus Reed believed it important to not only weaken the Confederacy, but to strengthen the Union war effort by enlisting African-American soldiers.
Ward concludes this magnificent regimental history with an examination of the regiment’s return to Pottsville and efforts to memorialize their service on the Gettysburg battlefield with a monument dedicated in 1888. Additionally, Ward uses the book’s final chapter to examine the postwar lives of some of the regiment’s members. The unit’s first colonel, Henry L. Cake, enjoyed a lucrative postwar career as the founder of the Philadelphia Coal Company; he also served two terms in the United States House of Representatives. Others such as Jacob Frick devoted his efforts to “helping individual veterans or their spouses in obtaining pension benefits” (271).
On a personal level, as someone born and raised in Schuylkill County, I am pleased that someone has finally taken the time to appropriately record the 96th Pennsylvania’s service. However, this book’s value goes well beyond kindling pride in those whose ancestral ties are connected to the Keystone state’s anthracite region. Those seeking a deeper understanding of the common soldier of the Army of the Potomac, how those veterans managed to confront hardships on a daily basis, how soldiers felt about their commanders and the government, and how those men transitioned back to civilian life will find Ward’s regimental history—profusely illustrated with photographs and accompanied by excellent maps—exceedingly beneficial.
Jonathan A. Noyalas is director of Shenandoah University’s McCormick Civil War Institute, founding editor of Journal of the Shenandoah Valley During the Civil War Era, and the author or editor of eleven books on Civil War era history.