Wiregrass to Appomattox: The Untold Story of the 50th Georgia Infantry Regiment, CSA

 by James W. Parrish, Angle Valley Press, 2008, $39.95

More than 1,400 men from Georgia’s Wiregrass district, which runs adjacent to the state’s border with Florida, made up the 50th Georgia Infantry. The regiment reached Virginia in the summer of 1862, and campaigned steadily for the remainder of the war as part of Robert E. Lee’s famed Army of Northern Virginia.

During their first year of battle, the men of the 50th fought as one of four regiments in a brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Paul J. Semmes. After Semmes was mortally wounded at Gettysburg, the brigade passed to lesser-known leaders—first Goode Bryan, then James P. Simms. Through the 50th’s entire service, its brigade belonged to the division commanded by Lafayette McLaws and later Joseph B. Kershaw.

The paramount utility of regimental histories for a broader audience, beyond their obvious attraction for descendants and local interest, lies in the extent to which they print contemporary primary material—especially that garnered from unpublished sources. Indeed, Parrish’s bibliography lists 26 manuscript collections.

Quotes from those manuscripts will constitute the most interesting content of Wiregrass to Appomattox for many readers. They cover a wide range of soldiers’ experiences. One letter from a mortally wounded soldier to his wife following the Battle of Salem Church closes with a plea to her to “kiss each of” his sons “for their father and tell them not to forget him.” The chapter that covers Chancellorsville and Salem Church uses plentiful eyewitness sources, reproduced at length. It probably is the best one in the book.

Early war letters ooze naïve belligerence: “We will give the Yankees hell and I don’t care how soon.” Three years later the tone had changed predictably: “I want peace. I want to go home and live….I have seen enough of war and of different countrys to satisfy me the rest of my days.”

The 50th participated in all of the campaigns of Lee’s First Corps, including the excursion to Georgia and Tennessee that reached Chickamauga, and then moved on to Long street’s fiasco at Knoxville. The regiment suffered dreadfully in the botched attack on Fort Sanders. The hardcore remnant of the 50th that survived three years of battering surrendered 65 soldiers at Sailor’s Creek and 29 more at Appomattox. By that bitter end, the war had cost the Wiregrass men dearly.

Of the 1,404 soldiers whom Parrish identified as members of the unit at some point, 530 died in service—a daunting mortality rate of nearly 40 percent. Typically, more 50th Georgia soldiers succumbed to microbes than shot and shell. A well-done statistical summary that breaks down casualties by company reveals that all 10 of the regiment’s companies suffered near equally.

Twenty-seven (mostly good) maps and more than 100 photos help illuminate this narrative. One unusual but appealing feature is an array of modern photographs depicting the scenes of the 50th Georgia’s battles.

The book’s roster will be valuable to anyone hoping to document an individual in the unit. I would be better impressed with it had the author expanded his search to include more biographical details harvested from cemeteries, obituaries and other local sources. Photographs of 46 soldiers’ tombstones supply some details of that sort, and the roster does include data from pensions.

 

Originally published in the September 2009 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here