Wednesday, May 11, 2011

4th Michigan Infantry

The 4th Michigan Infantry in the Civil War. By Martin N. Bertera and Kim Crawford. Photographs, index, 560 pp., 2010, Michigan State University Press,, 517-355-9543, $44.95, cloth.

Sometimes our Civil War reading is so focused on battles and commanders that we forget to think about the inner workings of the regiment, which is what nearly every soldier dealt with. The 4th Michigan Infantry in the Civil War puts the focus back on the regiment. The 4th Michigan did not leave a record of bloody battle after bloody battle. Instead it managed through good luck to miss most of the horrible engagements that reduced regiments into company sized skeletons of their former selves.

The 4th Michigan served in the Army of the Potomac from the beginning at First Manassas up until the beginning of the siege of Petersburg. Not enough men had reenlisted for the unit to continue so the veterans were transferred to the 1st Michigan to complete there service at Appomattox. During that time the regiment was engaged in four battles, Gaines Mill, Malvern Hill, Gettysburg and the Wilderness. Remarkably they lost their commanding officer killed or mortally wounded in three of those fights. At the other battles of the Army of the Potomac though they missed major combat, sometimes acting as a rear guard, being posted to a quiet portion of the line or being part of an uncommitted reserve.

One area the book excels at is discussing the politics of command. While not all officers were politicians they were generally politically connected. At times members of the officer corps did not get along and tried to get others removed from the regiment. This is a somewhat little looked at aspect of volunteer regiments that this book covers quite well.

One failing of the book though is a lack of maps. Often the regiment’s location would be described in great detail but without a map those details do not mean as much. For some battlefields I know well enough or have books of maps so that I could match the text to the map but I much rather prefer books that include their own maps.

All in all this is a very good book. The authors provide a great amount of detail on all aspects of the regiment, from their time in battle, to the relationships between officers and the governor, and on the common soldiers as well. Normally it seems that the best regimental histories focus on regiments that saw a ton of combat or whose service was unique in other respects like geography. This regiment does not meet either attribute but the quality of the writing made this an enjoyable read nonetheless.

Reviewed for Civil War News


Mark Noce said...

Very cool :) I often think history on the regimental level gets neglected in favor of big generals. Greta post:)

4th Michigan Infantry said...

While I agree with both your comments and criticism of Crawford and Bertera's book on the Fourth Michigan Infantry, I do beg to differ with you on your view of the Fourth Michigan's service in the Army of the Potomac. You failed to mention Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, among those battles that the regiment fought in. While you do point out that "remarkably" the regiment lost each of her commanding officers at Malvern Hill, Gettysburg, and the Wilderness, you do not mention that the regiment was among Fox's "Fighting 300" and one of the few regiments in the war to lose more men, 199, in battle than to disease ,108 (stats according to Dyer's Compendium). Even if you look at just the losses (killed, captured, and wounded) that the regiment suffered at Malvern Hill and Gettysburg, one might conclude that the Fourth Michigan Infantry "saw a ton of combat".

Nick said...

I'm not saying that the regiment didn't suffer many casualties, just that they did it mainly at 4 battles.