Friday, April 3, 2009

Marching with the First Nebraska

Marching with the First Nebraska: A Civil War Diary - August Scherneckau
Edited by James E. Potter and Edith Robbins. Translated by Edith Robbins.
Illustrated, index, 335 pp., 2007. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma 73069. Cloth $34.95, plus shipping.

Marching with the First Nebraska combines Scherneckau’s diary and letters into an interesting story covering their less than dramatic service in the trans-Mississippi theater. Before Scherneckau enlisted in the regiment it had served at Fort Donelson and Shiloh. In September 1862 Scherneckau enlisted in the regiment which was then serving in Missouri.

The first action Scherneckau saw was in General John Davidson’s campaign in December 1862-February 1863 in northern Arkansas. This campaign was mostly about gathering forage than fighting Confederates. But even this Scherneckau makes interesting as he explains foraging in such a way that the reader gets a better appreciation for all the work involved. Some days Scherneckau spends picking corn from fields, loading wagons and other days Scherneckau spends it shucking the corn that the foragers brought in the day before.

After that excursion Scherneckau’s company is sent to St Louis to do guard duty, in the sense of a military police. This sounds like very tedious work but when he was not doing guard duty he seems to have quite a bit of free time, much more than most soldiers in the field experienced. Scherneckau went for walks around St Louis visiting camps, hospitals, museums, theaters and the naval yards to see ironclads being built for river warfare.

He also was part of the force that built Fort Davidson near Pilot Knob that would play such a pivotal role in the battle of September 27, 1864, Scherneckau’s regiment had moved back to St Louis by then. Soon after this the regiment was converted to cavalry. For some strange reason the regiment was not issued carbines, only sabers and revolvers to go along with their infantry rifles. Scherneckau even mentions at one point the regiment went through cavalry inspection and then did infantry inspection. Scherneckau rightly complains about having to handle so many weapons and do the extra inspections.

The last campaign discussed in Scherneckau’s diary would be done as cavalry as the regiment moved down to Little Rock, then garrisoned Batesville and Jacksonport. It was at Batesville that Scherneckau was wounded, but it did not occur in battle. He was on his way to the picket post, got lost, approached the sentry from the wrong direction and was fired upon. In fact he had not even fired his rifle at an enemy until the end of January 1864, roughly 16 months into his service.

While he is recovering from this wound his regiment received their veteran furlough and he returned to Grand Island. These men did not serve their full furloughs as the Indian War of 1864 kicks off and the regiment is called back into service to defend their state from the Indians. The work of protecting the wagon routes seemed to be never ending and the regiment ends up staying on active duty long past the end of the war, Scherneckau musters out in October 1865 but his comrades stay under arms until June 1866.

Scherneckau’s diary is full of other interesting tidbits. Scherneckau remarks on all he sees around him. He writes about the countryside and the cities he sees. He writes about the weather, about his comrades, politics and all sorts of things. I found a few things especially interesting, one is that Scherneckau says the first time he used his bayonet was to kill a pig.

Scherneckau’s opinions are also quite interesting. At one point in responding to a rumor that the regiment will be sent to the Kansas-Missouri border to enforce law and order, which would include stopping the attacks by the Kansans as well as the Missourians, Scherneckau says “the copperhead governor will find out that they have chosen the wrong men for this, since surely we will make common cause with the Kansas boys. We would help eradicate the border tramps, alias bushwhackers, with fire and sword.”

While Scherneckau’s diary is not filled with tales of battle it is still an interesting read because Scherneckau fills his pages with plenty of details of soldier life in the Trans Mississippi, especially one who spent lots of time doing guard duty. Scherneckau also was a keen observer of the world around him.

I was a little disappointed that Scherneckau enlisted too late to have been at Fort Donelson or Shiloh since I greatly enjoy researching Shiloh. But I did enjoy Scherneckau's diary because it is not something we normally come across in Civil War literature.

This review first appeared in Civil War News. It was on the first page of the review section. Not sure if that's by pure luck or because it was "front page worthy" After reading through and finding mistakes I think it was because it fit the space nicely.

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