From Home Guards to Heroes, the 87th Pennsylvania and Its Civil War Community
By Dennis W. Brandt
Illustrated, maps, footnotes, appendix, bibliography, index, 312 pp., 2007. University of Missouri Press, 2910 LeMone Blvd., Columbia, MO 65201, $42.50 plus shipping.
Reviewer: Frank Piatek
Frank Piatek graduated from Geneva College with a B.A. in history. He received his J.D. from Duquesne University in 1972. He is a member of several reenactment groups and past president of the Mahoning Valley Civil War Round Table.
The 87th Pennsylvania Infantry was comprised of men from York, Adams and Dauphin counties in south-central Pennsylvania, many of whom enlisted for less than lofty national reasons. In some instances, its members simply joined to help protect the railroads from destruction rather than to preserve the Union. But for a state militia unit which was later detached, the 87th eventually became involved in some of the hardest fighting in the Eastern Theater, participating in 28 separate engagements.
Originally used to guard the railroad system in Maryland and Pennsylvania, the regiment later became associated with Gen. Robert H. Milroy's Eighth Corps camped in Winchester, Va. It was there that the 87th had the unfortunate experience of confronting Confederate Gen. Richard Ewell's force on its way toward the Keystone state and its destiny at Gettysburg.
Among the casualties was Cpl. John Skelly of Co. F who would lose his life but achieve fame as the beau of Virginia "Jennie" Wade, the lone civilian casualty at Gettysburg.
The regiment became part of the Third Corps of the Army of the Potomac and participated at Mine Run before becoming assimilated into Gen. John Sedgwick's Sixth Corps at the time of the Overland Campaign in 1864.
It was in severe action at Cold Harbor before being transferred again to General Lew Wallace's command where the 87th participated at the battle of Monocacy - perhaps its greatest service. It was detached once more and was with Gen. Philip Sheridan in actions around the Shenandoah Valley, including Opequan and Fisher's Hill.
The men who stayed on after their three-year term of enlistment ended found more fighting at Cedar Creek where Cpl. Daniel P. Reigle's conduct in wresting a Rebel flag secured him the Medal of Honor. The 87th continued on to Petersburg, Saylor's Creek and finally Appomattox at the conclusion of the war in the East.
Unlike many regimental histories, including an earlier one of the unit by George R. Prowel, this account is unique because its focus is not so much on campaigns or tactics in battle. Rather, it focuses on the individual personalities who, after all, gave the regiment its character.
Using thousands of individual service and pension records, Brandt traces many of the soldiers from enlistment, through battle, to what later happened to them.
Officers and enlisted men are profiled. All of their foibles, impersonal relationships and behavior are here to see - both good and bad. Indeed, this perspective makes the book a social history within the larger context of the regiment's activities throughout the war. It is a more intimate portrayal, which can be enjoyed, by general reader and Civil War buff alike.
Some of the characters are colorful, and Brandt spares no one who deserves censure, including deserters. Like any other regiment, discipline problems were endemic in the 87th, particularly given the fact that these were citizen soldiers whose democratic spirit far outweighed any adherence to military rules and procedures.
There were instances of violence and plain obstreperous conduct, which might be expected given the backgrounds of some of the men before they even entered service.
The soldiers' attitudes about race relations and postwar politics are an interesting commentary on their own thought processes as well as a reflection of the communities from which they came. All of this is presented in an unvarnished manner. Such a balanced presentation makes this offering one of the most interesting and entertaining regimentals that I have encountered in quite some time.
Brandt also provides a statistical breakdown of personal information about the men, including age and physical characteristics, nationality, marital status and personal worth.
He takes issue with those who suggest that desertions were higher among married men who left to support their families because his statistics, at least among the 87th, do not support this theory.
While refusing to make oversimplified generalizations, Brandt does note that immigrants deserted at a higher rate than native-born men and were less likely to return to active duty.
There is much to savor here, and the reader will certainly not be disappointed with the author's efforts. As a part of the publisher's "Shades of Blue and Gray Series," which explores the interplay between the war and society's values, this book is a worthy contribution to that sociological theme.