- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 23, 2002


By Mark Nesbitt

Stackpole Press, 208 pages, $14.95


This is not a work on Civil War tactics or a dissection of a significant action at Gettysburg, much less an essay on the meaning of Gettysburg. Rather, Mark Nesbitt, in "35 Days to Gettysburg," has given us the journal entries of two infantrymen: from June 1 to July 2, 1863, for Thomas Ware, Company G, 15th Georgia Regiment of Infantry, who fought at Devil's Den, and from June 1 to July 5 for Franklin Horner, Company H, 12th Regiment Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteer Infantry, who fought at Big Round Top.
The entries by Horner, who was a carpenter by trade, are laconic. Nevertheless, his anger at his officers can be sensed when he writes, "[W]e have to ly in the dust the best we can and still we have to come out on dress parade like as if we came out of a band box."
Ware's entries are longer and more regular in spelling and grammar. Although Ware was a farmer, his brother, Robert, who in December 1862 had transferred from Company B, 6th Alabama Infantry, to join him, was a schoolteacher. Perhaps the brothers shared an interest in books and writing. Ware also meticulously noted the routes covered and the times it took to traverse those routes.
Facing each page of diary entries are maps showing the movements of the two men. It is barely possible, after a century and a half during which the land has been developed and redeveloped, to have a sense of how far Horner walked when he marched out of Washington, along Columbia Pike to Leesburg Pike and thence to Upton's Hill.
It is even harder for most Americans to imagine what it must have been like to make those marches in brogans instead of today's modern boots and without modern packs, designed and stiffened to transfer weight to the hips, or sophisticated "hydration systems."
The author makes a point of reminding today's readers what it was "for men simply walking along the road to suddenly pass out and die from sunstroke something that certainly could be prevented. Yet when canteens run dry and the day is hot and the men are burdened by equipment, death by overheating is not only possible, but probable. And there was a certain purposefulness to this march as well. … Commanders at the head of the column rarely see the deaths Ware describes."
This is one moment when the author's focus on the individual rifleman leads him astray. Good officers always have known what it means to their soldiers when in summer heat they give such orders as: "Colonel, I want your men across the Thornton River by nightfall." Capable officers weigh heat casualties against those incurred by both the unit and the larger army by failing to get their men across the river in time, and they push their men accordingly or advise their superiors that willing men can do only so much. It is the function of commissioned officers to expend soldiers' lives; good officers do so with care.
This is a minor failing, however. Although Mr. Nesbitt writes about private soldiers, with their concerns for a few cherries, a good sleep and a bit of rain to keep down the dust on the march, he rarely loses sight of the big picture, nor do his maps permit his readers to do so.
Day by day, we come closer to Gettysburg, and on June 16, Mr. Nesbitt notes Horner's premature news of the Rebels invading his home state of Pennsylvania and his accurate conjecture that "likely this move of lees is the last or death struggle of the rebels." Though Horner may have been whistling in the dark, Gettysburg was the beginning of the end for the Confederacy.
It also was the death of Thomas Ware, for on July 1, the handwriting in his diary changes. His brother, Robert, kept the diary for that day and noted on July 2 that Thomas had been killed. He may have seen his brother's death, well may have helped identify the remains and probably helped bury his brother upon the field. The next day, Robert was captured. For him, the war was over.
Horner, who sometimes wrote lines in the brief moments before being committed to battle, was honorably discharged 10 months later.
The author is a former Gettysburg park ranger and historian who sought the advice of professional historians and used the resources of the U.S. Army's Military History Institute at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania. Nowhere does he better balance these twin influences than in his closing essay on the effects of casualties on the Civil War system of recruiting.
Civil War regiments were recruited on a community or regional basis, and while some came to be reinforced by individual soldiers, most were not.
As those regiments recruited locally were ground down, they became too weak to function as they were designed to do, unnecessarily costing lives and devastating the communities that furnished the men and the few women who filled their ranks. Mr. Nesbitt places this devastation in the context of Indian County, Pa., and Lincoln County, Ga., where Horner's and Ware's companies were raised.
During World War II and Vietnam, casualties were replaced by individuals, enabling the United States to keep combat formations close to authorized strength. That is the level at which units are designed to function most effectively, even during the most intense combat, while distributing casualties across the population. As we now rely upon locally raised Reserve and National Guard units to round out the Regular forces in lieu of a draft, this fine essay should provoke thought in all those who still believe in the viability of the regimental system.
Erin Solar is a graduate student in Norwitch University's Military Graduate Program, working on a thesis about the 127th Infantry during the Buna, Papua New Guinea, campaign.

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