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From Home Guards to Heroes: The 87th Pennsylvania and Its Civil War Community

by Dennis W. Brandt, University of Missouri Press, 2006, 274 pages, $42.50.

Typifying the locally recruited state units that constituted the bulk of both armies during the Civil War, the 87th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry was recruited primarily from York County, though the men in two of its companies (F and I) came from Adams County. That is ironic when you note that on July 1, 1863, when the war’s most famous battle began at Gettysburg, in Adams County, and the 87th was unavailable to participate. Some two weeks earlier, on June 14, the regiment had been routed at the Second Battle of Winchester and withdrawn to Harpers Ferry, having lost one-third of its personnel, mostly as prisoners of war.

Reconstituted after Gettysburg on July 6, the 87th Pennsylvania was reassigned to Brig. Gen. James B. Ricketts’ 3rd Division of the VI Corps, Army of the Potomac, with which it would take part in the Overland campaign and the Battle of Cold Harbor before being transferred to the Army of the James. On July 6, 1864, Ricketts’ division was transferred again, this time to Baltimore. A few days later, it was hurriedly marched to assist Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace in defending Washington from a threatening Confederate force. So it was on July 9 that the 87th Pennsylvania confronted its nemesis from Second Winchester, the Second Corps under Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early, at Monocacy in an action that was credited with saving the capital and more than redeeming the regiment—at the cost of 74 men killed, wounded or captured, its highest casualties in a single battle.

Civil War regimental histories have been documented from the time the guns fell silent and augmented by local authors ever since. From Home Guards to Heroes: The 87th Pennsylvania and Its Civil War Community is a classic case in point. Author Dennis W. Brandt is a resident of Red Lion in York County. What distinguishes Brandt’s effort is his detailed study of the local records in tracing the lives of the 87th’s personnel, commissioned and enlisted, to go beyond the unit’s wartime activities, putting their behavior within the context of the times and social environment from which they came. The result reminds the reader of one possibly overlooked reason for Americans’ continuing fascination with the Civil War—behind the uniform discipline that the two armies tried to instill, each regiment had a character shaped, for better, worse or both, by the communities in which its men were recruited. As such, the compilation of so many soldiers’ stories within the common experience of war forms a social time capsule of mid-19th century central Pennsylvania.

From hometowns to grueling marches through western Virginia to battlefields to the ordeal of prisons such as Andersonville, From Home Guards to Heroes shows how the predominantly German and Scotch-Irish denizens of York and Adams counties dealt with war’s realities. Not all of them did so honorably or successfully, as Brandt recounts with the whitewash removed from the original postwar regimental history, but that can only be expected from soldiers who were, after all, only human. Subordinating the war’s “big pictures” to the humanity within the regiment, Brandt’s work makes a worthy trendsetter for future unit histories documenting more regions of the United—and Confederate— States for posterity.

Originally published in the July 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.