War’s Relentless Hand: Twelve Tales of Civil War Soldiers
by Mark H. Dunkelman, Louisiana State University Press, 2006, 288 pages, $34.95.
Some 40 years ago Mark Dunkelman set out to follow the sparse paper trail left by his great-grandfather, who had once served with the 154th New York Volunteers. His labor of love grew into half a lifetime of deepening inquiry, fostered a unique bond between the researcher and the men of the “Hardtack Regiment” and spawned three books. If other regimental historians got to know the men in their units as well as Dunkelman has his, none have so capably applied what they learned to the broader world of Civil War soldiering. With War’s Relentless Hand, Dunkelman risks drifting from the sure path cut in broader-reaching regimental histories by narrowing his focus to a mere dozen of his familiar New Yorkers. Instead, his typically deft exploration of Civil War history from the bottom up illuminates the effect of the war on soldiers and their families and produces an entertaining addition to a valuable body of work.
A fine writer with a keen sense of drama, Dunkelman began his work at soldiers’ gravesides and pieced together their poignant mini-biographies from long-hidden family letters and dusty public records. Among his subjects is Corporal Joel M. Bouton, an amiable 22-year-old who hurried into a battle line at Gettysburg just a few weeks after accidentally shooting off his own toe. Here also are the heart-rending stories of Private William Hawkins—the well-liked barber transformed by the Confederate prison camp at Andersonville into “a wreck in mind as well as body”—and Privates Barzilla and Alva Merrill, father and son soldiers who shared long marches, bad food and the same unfortunate fate at Chancellorsville. And nowhere else will Civil War buffs find the remarkable tale of Private Francis “Blind” Patterson, a once-hearty teamster-turned-deserter robbed of his sight by either campfire smoke (as he claimed), “a bad disorder” (as his wife claimed) or by venereal disease (as skeptical acquaintances guessed). After a strange two-decade battle with the U.S. government, Patterson received the largest single Civil War pension payment ever disbursed. But even with that, his bizarre story was just beginning.
Never forgetting the larger picture, Dunkelman selected accounts that were not only dramatic but depicted “one of the many fates that lurked in waiting for Civil War soldiers.” North and South, these young men and their loved ones would surely have related to at least one subject addressed here, whether it was the cold weather; the often violent harshness of prison life; the comfort and despair of hospitals; exasperating dealings with government agencies such as the Pension Bureau and the Federal Bureau of Prisons; or at the very least, the bitterness of unexplainable loss. These 12 New Yorkers speak, one way or another, for the vast and diverse brotherhood of Civil War soldiers.
In preparing his latest study, Dunkelman writes: “I sought to breathe some life back into these twelve soldiers, to reconstruct a bit of their world during the Civil War. Their tales illuminate some dark corners of the war’s history. With them we veer off the wide road trod by mighty armies into the narrow byways of human hopes and fears, horrors and heartbreak, love and loss.” In its unassuming dust jacket, War’s Relentless Hand unfortunately looks a bit like one of the countless uninteresting dust magnets churned out each year by tiny publishers looking to cash in with the Civil War crowd. But its content is lively, touching and timeless, and any readers who are drawn to the war’s human side should seek it out.
Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.