Tuesday, May 08, 2007

CWL --- And Then There Were None: The 20th Massachusetts at War

Harvard's Civil War: A History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Miller, Richard F.,University Press of New England, maps, photographs, end notes, selected bibliography and index, 530 pp, $35.00, 2005.

James McPherson tells a story of a commander of the 101st Airborne, who while taking a tour of Antietam and viewing the Sunken Road, stated that "You couldn't get American soldiers today to make an attack like that." 'Like that' meant the 50% casualties that Union regiments suffered at the center of the Confederate line.
Why not? Is it because neither the soldiers nor the public would tolerate casualties of that magnitude?

McPherson suggests that the wrong question is being asked. The 1st Texas at Antietam, the 1st Minnesota and the 26th North Carolina at Gettysburg suffered 80%+ casualties. What motivated these men and how did they endure the losses and return to battle? These are question McPherson has addressed in several books and articles.

Richard F. Miller in Harvard's Civil War offers a particular understanding of leadership as the answer to the question of motivation. The ideals of sacrifice, honor and duty, embodied in classical education of the era, were carried by the eight officers of the 20th Massachusetts Regiment who were killed in battle and the many who were wounded and the very few who were unscathed. Many of these men were descendants of the Revolutionary generation. Did the enlisted men, the non-commissioned officers and the commissioned officers disagree about slavery, about emancipation and about Lincoln's war aims and policies. Certainly. Yet the steadfastness and courage in battle of the 20th Massachusetts remained unaffected by the arguments over tactics, strategy and policy. The enlisted men did not select the commissioned officers; it was the prerogative of Massachusetts governor John Andrew to do so.

But these ideals were not limited to those with shoulder boards. John Kelliher, bootmaker in civilian life, first sergeant, lieutenant and captain in the 20th Massachusetts, was wounded at Spotsylvania in 1864; his lower jaw, an arm and shoulder blade, a portion of the clavicle, and two ribs were removed. In six months returned to the regiment as a major and finished the war in the active ranks.

Richard F. Miller's story of the 20th Massachusetts is among the best regimental histories that have been produced in the last 20 years but there are distractions between its covers. The book is not really about Harvard's Civil War. The institution is used as a frame for Miller's picture of the regiment. This book is not a history or biography of Harvard alumni. The ending of the story is rushed. In one paragraph, the 20th moves through 2nd Hatcher's Run in February 1865 to Farmville, Virginia, April 6th 1865. This paragraph is the fourth from the last paragraph of the book. Though the first chapter is entitled July 21 1865 and recounts the reception of Harvard's alumni who were now veterans of the war, it is not a fit as the end of the regiment's story.

Helpful for the reader would have been a chronology, a roster, and a brief section dealing what became of the significant surviving men and officers after the war. The maps are satisfactory as are the 34 photographic portraits of men of the regiment.

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