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General Abner M. Perrin, C.S.A.: A Biography

 Ron V. Killian, McFarland & Co.

Brigadier General Abner Monroe Perrin’s “important life,” Ron Killian suggests, has “yet to be given the attention it deserves.” This first-ever book-length sketch of Perrin provides a starting point—but it also misses numerous vital sources, leaving the Confederate commander still lacking a full profile. Perrin’s experience in the Mexican War, for example, which served as a proving ground for so many men destined for Civil War leadership, covers only two pages. That slim sketch brings to light nothing from the rich lode of primary official material available, including a service record and correspondence with the adjutant general.

When his native South Carolina seceded, Perrin joined the 14th South Carolina Infantry, with captain’s rank; he would eventually rise to colonel of the regiment. Success at that level earned him promotion to brigadier late in 1863. But Samuel McGowan commanded the brigade that included the 14th, which meant that Perrin’s new assignment put him over unfamiliar, though first-rate, troops from Alabama. Although Killian’s book doesn’t include much evidence on the subject, some of the Alabamians apparently bridled at promotion of a South Carolinian over them. Despite that, their new brigadier performed capably during the few months of life left him.

The chapter on Perrin’s final battle, Spotsylvania, typifies the book’s paucity of source material on the subject, and also points up its tendency to ramble. In its first 10 pages—more than half the chapter’s total length— Perrin himself is invisible, while the narrative scrutinizes side topics such as Army of the Potomac quarrels; who shot Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick; and the failings of General Gershom (misspelled as Greshom) Mott.

It doesn’t help that the few maps included to illuminate the topic offer little detail. And Killian’s prose disappoints at times, displaying intelligence but not much sophistication. At least there is a useful appendix that recounts the ultimate fate of Perrin’s corpse, with reference to some vital primary documents.

Readers who focus on the Army of Northern Virginia will welcome this book, but they may be dismayed to find that it falls far short of being a definitive biography.


Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.