Christopher C. Wehner. The 11th Wisconsin in the Civil War: A Regimental History. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers (April 16, 2008). 248 pages, 16 maps, roster, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-0786432103 $45.00 (Library Binding).
What does one look for in a good regimental history? First person accounts? Check. Social breakdown of the regiment pre-war? Check. Enough background history for inexperienced readers to make sense of the book but not so much that experienced readers suffer through a rehash of well-known battles? Check. Good storytelling? Check. Maps which depict both campaigns and the individual battles? For the most part check. Fellow blogger Chris Wehner’s new book The 11th Wisconsin in the Civil War: A Regimental History combines all of these things and results in a very good book on this previously forgotten regiment.
From their mustering in on October 18, 1861 to their final destination of Madison, Wisconsin on September 18, 1865, the 11th Wisconsin saw quite a bit of the South, traveling over 9,000 miles while attached to numerous different armies. In a blog post typed up after the book was released, Chris revises this estimate even higher, speculating the regiment may have gone as far as 12,000 miles. In between, these farmers from Wisconsin were involved in guarding railroads and chasing guerillas in Missouri, saw their first real fight at Bayou Cache in eastern Arkansas, went on to see action in multiple battles of the Vicksburg Campaign, soldiered on under Banks in Louisiana and Texas, and ended the war assaulting Fort Blakely near Mobile, Alabama on the same day Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House.
In looking at the men of the regiment, Wehner found most were involved in the day to day operations of farms. He uses the diaries and letters of many of these men to tell their tale, interweaving his own interpretations of their Civil War history to flesh out the book. The reader will meet men such as Sergeant Samuel Kirkpatrick, who was with the regiment from first to last and whose letters were a driving force in the creation of this book; the Mather brothers, Oliver and Jesse, who enlisted against their parents’ wishes and who stuck together during the war; Surgeon Henry Strong, who stayed with the regiment as long as his failing health would allow; and William Henry Oettiker, Wehner’s ancestor and the reason he became interested in the 11th Wisconsin in the first place.
Many regimental histories tend to assume readers already have extensive knowledge of the Civil War period. Wehner does not make this assumption, and the book is better off for it. He often uses an asterisk behind a sentence which allows those new to the subject to become familiar with terms such as abatis, which is old hat for long time Civil War buffs. Wehner also does a good job walking a fine line and avoids getting too far away from the specific history of the 11th Wisconsin when he writes about the various campaigns the regiment was involved in.
The book contained mostly solid maps. I was especially impressed by the map of the action at Bayou Cache, which Chris mentions was done by Civil War publisher Ted Savas. I thought there were too many generic maps of entire actions culled from the Library of Congress. I would have liked to have seen more hand-drawn battle maps, especially of the Vicksburg battles. In the end, the maps are in one case brilliant and in others good to average. In these cases the blame (or praise when warranted) should typically be placed squarely on the publisher’s shoulders.
There are four appendices in the book. The first is a full roster of the regiment separated out by company and further by officers and enlisted men. In each case, readers can see the full name of the soldier, his rank, place of enlistment, date of enlistment, and type and date of their departure from the regiment. Appendix B looks at the civilian occupations of the soldiers in the regiment. Here we see that around 72% of the men in the regiment were farmers. Appendix C gives the muster sites for the regiment by company. Appendix D is a unique and interesting “Victory Sermon” by 11th Wisconsin volunteer Reverend George Wells after the victory at Fort Blakely and Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox. Appendix E which I found to be a slightly odd inclusion, appears to show the organization of the 11th Wisconsin’s Brigade, Division, and Corps during the Vicksburg Campaign.
Wehner’s writing style was very enjoyable and allows readers to become immersed in the story of the regiment. It caters to beginners as well as self-styled experts on the Civil War. The author relies heavily on the letters and diaries of the 11th Wisconsin’s soldiers to tell their own story, just as it should be. Wehner relies on a wide variety of sources, including the aforementioned letters and diaries, regimental histories of units involved in the same fighting as the 11th Wisconsin, published secondary accounts as well as unpublished theses. He does not rely too heavily on any one source to tell the story, adding his own thoughts as well in the necessary and logical places.
Chris Wehner’s The 11th Wisconsin in the Civil War: A Regimental History is an enjoyable look at a regiment which experienced many different types of service in a wide variety of places over the four years of the Civil War. His book will be equally attractive to neophytes and veterans of regimental histories alike. Wehner has paid his ancestor William Henry Oettiker and his regiment a great tribute. I highly recommend this book to those interested in first person accounts of the war, in regimental histories, and in the Western Theater of the Civil War. I only hesitate to recommend this book to everyone due to the excessive price of $45.00 set by the publisher.
Special thanks goes to Beth H. Cox of McFarland & Company and also to author Chris Wehner.
Readers can order the book from McFarland at their web site (www.mcfarlandpub.com) or via phone at 800-253-2187.
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