- The Washington Times - Friday, March 31, 2006


By Richard F. Miller, University Press of New England, 530 pages, $35

One genre of Civil War history that lately has fallen out of favor is the unit history. In the decades after the war, hundreds of regiments immortalized their wartime deeds by commissioning someone to write a regimental history. The result was hagiography: The unit’s officers were unfailingly manly, its soldiers were brave, and willing hands seized any falling banner.

Yet some units deserve special recognition and even an objective history. The 20th Massachusetts Volunteers was one such unit, and author Richard F. Miller has told its story so skillfully that he may have breathed life into a vanishing art form.

Known as the Harvard Regiment for the overwhelming number of Harvard men among its officers, the 20th served in virtually every major battle in the Eastern theater. After a baptism of fire at Ball’s Bluff (where future justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. received the first of three wartime wounds), the regiment served in Gen. George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign against Richmond, fought costly rear-guard actions in the Seven Days Campaign and suffered severe casualties at Antietam and Fredericksburg.

As luck would have it, the Harvard Regiment was heavily involved in the third day’s battle at Gettysburg, helping to turn back Pickett’s famous charge. In Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s campaign against Richmond in 1864, the 20th was heavily involved in the fighting in the Wilderness and around Petersburg.

Yet the story of the Harvard Regiment is more than a war narrative. Today’s Harvard bears little resemblance to that of 1861, when so many students rushed to the colors that in Mr. Miller’s words, “Within a few days [of the attack on Fort Sumter] Harvard itself had almost ceased to function.”

However, amid the patriotism there were sharp class differences. In 1861, virtually any Harvard man was assured of being appointed an officer, which left room for few others. A year later, though, Sgt. James Murphy was promoted to lieutenant after regimental commander Henry Abbott concluded: “If it were not for his Irish characteristics, he would be an uncommonly good officer.” In 1862, one officer complained, “We seem to have nothing but Sergeants promoted. For God’s sake can’t we now & then [have] a gentleman?”

Politically, the 20th was divided between those who fought to end slavery and those who fought to preserve the Union. Most of the officers admired McClellan despite the fact that the general did not share the anti-slavery perspective of most of the Crimson.

Some readers may be surprised by the warm feeling the Harvards had for Gen. Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker. Best remembered today for his drinking and boasting, Hooker reformed the Army of the Potomac during his brief tenure as commanding general. He instituted a system of furloughs, provided rewards for elite units and improved the quality of rations.

Two weeks after Hooker’s promotion, a Federal surgeon observed, “A general change for the better … in every department of the army.”

It took more than improved morale to defeat Gen. Robert E. Lee, however, and the 20th participated in yet another Union defeat, at Chancellorsville. By the time the 20th saw a true victory at Gettysburg, the Army was under Gen. George Meade, its fourth commander. The regiment took special satisfaction in hurling back Pickett’s Charge. The moment Col. Abbott saw the advancing gray line, he later wrote, “I knew we should give them Fredericksburg. So did everybody.”

As the war went on, the 20th experienced problems that still resonate today. In an early instance of “fragging” (assassination of an officer by his own troops) a captain of the regiment was shot in camp by a soldier whose identity was never determined.

“Friendly fire” also was a problem. When, at Spottsylvania, Abbott complained to division artillery that they were firing into his men, he gained the impression that they thought this problem “a matter of slight importance.”

By 1864, the 20th was hardly recognizable as the hardy band that had signed up in a burst of patriotism after Fort Sumter. Its numbers had fallen from around 800 to one-quarter of that number. There were positive changes as well, though. In the author’s words, “The war had whittled down the once socially exclusive band of brothers and those who survived seemed to be more accepting of others.”

Unless, of course, they were German Americans. The mass expiration of three-year enlistments had triggered an influx of German immigrants, who were attracted by the bonuses offered for enlistment. Many of them could not speak English, and a number of the New Englanders developed a hearty dislike for the newcomers.

By 1864, the regiment’s glory days were behind it. By then, if ordered to attack strong entrenchments, the men of the 20th — like other veterans — were likely to “sit down and make coffee.” Grant’s bloody attacks on well-entrenched Confederate defenses must have greatly increased coffee consumption in the Army of the Potomac.

After Appomattox, the Harvard Regiment returned to a warm civic welcome in Boston. Many of its survivors went on to distinguished careers. Most would agree with Oliver Wendell Holmes that their generation had been “touched with fire.”

Richard Miller’s fine book will find a place in many Civil War libraries.

John M. Taylor of McLean writes frequently on Civil War topics.

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