Book Review: The Civil War Infantryman: In Camp, on the March, and in Battle (Gregory Coco) : ACW

8/11/2001 • Civil War 1863, Mag: America's Civil War Reviews

Like all wars, the Civil War was decided by the man in the trenches–the humble foot soldier.

By B. Keith Toney

All too often when reading about the Civil War, one gets caught up in the personalities–the dashing cavalry leaders, the brave artillery commanders, the brilliant (or inept) commanding generals. There is a natural tendency to overlook the humble foot soldiers who made up the backbone of the armies. In future wars, they would become known by such colorful and descriptive names as doughboys, GIs and grunts. In the Civil War, the foot soldier was known as Johnny Reb and Billy Yank. Call him what you will, the fact remains that the majority of the work during any war–fighting, digging, marching and dying–is done by the guy in the trenches, the infantryman.

By the end of the Civil War, some 2 million Northerners and 750,000 Southerners had answered their respective governments’ call to military service, a staggering number when one considers that the Regular Army contained no more than 16,400 men when the war began. By far the majority of those who served were volunteers and infantrymen.

Who were these nameless, faceless millions? What did they wear? What did they eat? What made them laugh or cry, and what gave them their boundless courage? Most important, what made them willing to slaughter one another in wholesale numbers?

There have been a number of excellent books that help provide answers to these basic questions. Most readers are no doubt familiar with Bell Irvin Wiley’s classic two volumes, The Life of Johnny Reb and The Life of Billy Yank. Other works, such as James Robertson’s Soldiers Blue and Gray and Gerald Linderman’s Embattled Courage, have greatly added to our understanding of the Civil War soldier as an individual.

In The Civil War Infantryman: In Camp, on the March, and in Battle (Thomas Publications, Gettysburg, Pa., $19.95 hardcover, $12.95 softcover), Gregory Coco has combined the best elements of these and other works to provide a concise, highly readable description of the common fighting man of the Civil War. The author, a Vietnam veteran, reveals his empathy with veterans from another time as he details seemingly trivial things, such as the difficulties of filling a canteen in a hurry or deciding whether an item is worth the effort of carrying it a few more agonizing miles. Coco wants us to remember–and does a good job of reminding us–that just because someone puts on a uniform, he doesn’t stop being a human being.

The Civil War Infantryman is more than just a rehash of the writings of Wiley, Robertson and other Civil War experts. The author has succeeded admirably in combining firsthand accounts and his own interpretive skills to produce a complete picture of the soldiers’ experience, from putting on a uniform for the first time to putting it away for good after the grim business of war was concluded. All too often, the soldier discovered that the life he had left behind–and looked forward to reclaiming–had been irrevocably changed, just as he himself had been.

Those familiar with Coco’s previous nine books will find that the trend to maturity exhibited in the last few books continues. In some ways, this is the finest book Coco has produced to date.

Readers should not expect Coco’s book to supplant Bell Wiley’s work as the classic study of the Civil War soldier. It doesn’t, nor is it meant to do so. What The Civil War Infantryman does, however, is to complement other classic volumes very well and to carve its own niche in our understanding of the men who did the actual fighting. This book deserves a prominent place on any buff’s bookshelf. Just be sure to reserve a handy spot for it, as you will certainly refer to it time and again.