Mother, May You Never See the Sights I Have Seen: The Fifty-Seventh Massachusetts Veteran Volunteers in the Army of the Potomac, 1864-1865
by Warren Wilkinson
665 pp., 11 maps
I want to preface this review with the admission that I have read very few unit histories to this point. While I feel very comfortable reviewing campaign and battle studies, the same can not be said while reviewing a unit history. My tastes in books vary greatly, so I went into this review with an open mind. In many ways, Wilkinson’s book is more like some of the non-Civil War books I read than like the tactical and strategic studies I’m used to. With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s proceed.
When I first decided to get into the unit history field (which is LOADED with books to choose from, by the way), I figured the best way to go about choosing my first few books was to ask some experts. With that in mind, I went to the Civil War Discussion Group and the Compuserve/Netscape Civil War Forums to see what everyone on these knowledgeable groups would recommend. Quite a few people recommended Mother, May You Never See the Sights I Have Seen. What sealed the deal even further, though, was a blog entry on David Woodbury’s of Battlefields and Bibliophiles. In this excerpt from an issue of Civil War Regiments, no less than three historians cited the book as their favorite unit history.
Mother, May You Never See the Sights I Have Seen covers the relatively short but extremely brutal service of the Fifty-Seventh Massachusetts Veteran Volunteers from initial recruitment in the fall of 1863, through Grant’s Overland Campaign, and on to the trenches surrounding Petersburg, Virginia. Of the 900+ members who started with the regiment when it left Worcester, Massachusetts, in early spring 1864, only ten men made it through the last year of the war unscathed. The regiment was one of Fox’s famous “300 fighting regiments”, having lost 19.1% killed or mortally wounded. Wilkinson disputes this figure, and his calculations raise the total to 20.5% of the total killed or mortally wounded. Regardless of the exact numbers, this regiment suffered appalling casualties in a short amount of time. This story is dramatic enough in the hands of a pedestrian writer. Wilkinson, however, kept me interested sentence by sentence, page by page through 371 total pages of text. Wilkinson describes the experiences of these men, both the good and the bad, in great detail. He doesn’t fall prey to idolizing his subject matter. A reader learns that these were men with human failings, but that some were able to rise above these failings to fight resolutely for their cause. The roster located just after the text is amazing as well. Even privates receive quite a lot of attention. The roster runs from page 403 to page 623, and is a valuable reference for genealogists and other researchers. Wilkinson is not finished there, however. His appendices relate even more useful information on the regiment in easily read tables. The first appendix shows regimental strengths and casualties broken down by company for all of the major engagements of the 57th Massachusetts. Wargamers in particular will be interested in this material. If every author of a unit history included this information in as detailed a manner as Wilkinson did, there would be no need for unit strength research in the National Archives. The last two appendices cover statistical summaries of the men in the regiment, and a list of the ten who made it through the war without getting killed or wounded.
In conclusion, I am very glad I picked this particular volume to start seriously reading unit histories. To everyone who recommended that I read the book, I thank you. I truly believe this book would appeal to a wide range of readers, even those who are not necessarily Civil War “buffs”. In the same way Glory is an excellent, far-reaching film, Mother, May You Never See The Sights I Have Seen has the ability to reach out to a larger audience. I plan to recommend this book to those that ask me why I’m so interested in the Civil War. It hooks you and doesn’t let go, much like a well-written novel. Although I’ve read only a couple of unit histories, I get the feeling that few I read in the future will be as good as this one. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Check out Beyond the Crater: The Petersburg Campaign Online for the latest on the Siege of Petersburg!