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An exciting historical detective search: resurrecting a Civil War unit’s life

In this age of “cozy” Victorian detective stories and popular-reading thrillers starring CIA and police inspectors from all nations as heroes, those of us who have delved into the history of a specific Civil War unit know that it is one of the greatest “discover the mystery” searches of all.

Heroism, cowardice, hatred and pursuit of enemies, the search for power, romance, betrayal, and confrontations with death and maiming are all part of the story of a Civil War regiment or brigade, all contained within a four or five-year period. It is among many other things an exploration of the human condition.

At a recent presentation at the Indiana Historical Society I led a group of Civil War aficionados, twenty-five of them, who had come to talk about the Fourteenth Indiana Regiment. We ditched a good deal of the prepared speech, which followed the career of the Fourteenth, because many, most of these attendees knew the career quite well. These were serious Civil War enthusiasts, and they had come to deepen their knowledge of how a CW unit functions, fulfills its mission, excites our interest, and most of all transmits its heritage to the future. And they brought well-thumbed copies of the book on the regiment with them.

As author of Gallant Fourteenth: The Story of a Civil War Regiment, I was surprised at how many of these buffs had absorbed the detailed career of this group of Hoosiers of 150 years ago. The attendees had come from various parts of the state and beyond. One had followed not only the battlefield sites of the Iron Brigade with author Alan Nolan himself, but after my book came out had gone to all the sites where the Fourteenth had fought. He had followed the strategy of the Fourteenth’s commanders and walked where they had fought at Antietam and Fredericksburg and Gettysburg.  A reenactor of the Fourteenth reenactment regiment of Rockport, one of the regiment’s home towns, told of the modern regiment’s activities at involving young people in the reenactments.

It was a real surprise and gratification to see that so many people cared about this group of 1,000 men who went off as boys, almost, in April of 1861 at Lincoln’s first call for troops after the firing on Sumter, and how the group fell in battle and died of disease and even deserted leaving only a “Skeleton Regiment” to return after the Battle of Cold Harbor in 1864. The group recognized that the men’s personal letters and feelings and reactions to sacrifices and suffering of their families back home were a real part of the detective story: who were they really as men? What were they willing to die for and why? And what had made them the people they were?

We all still don’t have the answers to all the questions about their superb motivation and patriotism, not really dimmed by the horrible realities of killing warfare and the disgusting fight for advancement among drunken officers—and all those other realities. But we do understand them as human beings: reading dime novels, fighting with each other, flanking chickens on farms, recovering the bodies of childhood companions for shipment home, going to Barnum’s Museum, throwing themselves fatally against the hill at Fredericksburg and storming the Confederate guns at Gettysburg.  That is what makes the search so rewarding. In my own particular story, the result of five years of detective searching in small and large libraries and in cemeteries and battlefields, I was captured for life by the personal, human stories of Indiana’s small towns and people in the 1860s. They captivated me and I have never really been able to leave the fascination. Others who want to learn of their ancestor’s trip through the war will experience the fascination.

Advice for deepening their search to these buffs and genealogy seekers: find small libraries with letter and diary collections from your ancestor’s unit, follow its career in the post-war history of the Adjutant General’s Report now digitized, look at the official reports of The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, utilize the many digitized Civil War collections now on the net, access the Eugene and Marilyn Glick History Center’s library with its hundreds of Indiana Civil War documents. Consult the experts at the battlefield sites and follow their readings. And if you are at the beginning of your pilgrimage after the regiment, get your own ancestor’s career straight by taking the advice of Stephen Towne of the archives of IUPUI: use the old 3×5 cards of each Indiana soldier’s career at the Indiana State Library.

Yes, we are in a new multi-cultural society and need to care about the traditions and history of all of our many ethnic groups now, but there are lessons from our Indiana Civil War generation, the ancestors of many of us, that can still benefit us all today. It wasn’t for nothing that the despicable institution of slavery was destroyed, broken and that 200,000 men from Indiana went and 20,000 didn’t return.

Nancy Niblack Baxter’s books on the Civil War in addition to Gallant Fourteenth are available at Hawthornepub.com. Click back and order.