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Vortex of Hell: A History of the 5th New York Volunteer Infantry

 Brian C. Pohanka, Schroeder Publications

The late Brian Pohanka wore many hats during his long and varied career: historian, writer, editor, technical adviser, preservationist, mentor, friend. But there was perhaps no hat he wore with greater pride and reverence than the bright red kepi of a captain of the Duryée’s Zouaves living history group. Vortex of Hell is the first of a two-volume history of that regiment (Volume II will consist of a detailed roster with photographs and illustrations) that he composed prior to his death in 2005.

Pohanka’s friend and protégé Patrick Schroeder was charged with editing the manuscript. Footnotes and captions for the profuse illustrations were just two of the tasks left unfinished when Schroeder stepped in, and he has done an admirable job, considering the sheer size of the project (588 pages of text.) That there are some typos and repetition, though indicative of a disturbing trend in publishing, is perhaps understandable given the author’s absence during final production.

Recruited in New York City and environs, and led by wealthy merchant and longtime militia officer Abram Duryée, the 5th New York Infantry was mustered into Federal service for two years on May 9, 1861. The regiment soon became known for its colorful uniforms and precision drill. From its ranks nine men would become full or brevet general officers, including the likes of Gouverneur K. Warren and Hugh Judson Kilpatrick. The 5th saw action in one of the war’s earliest engagements,the Battle of Big Bethel outside Hampton, Va.; became a favorite in the North during garrison duty in Baltimore; and suffered its effective denouement at Second Manassas, where the regiment sustained 117 killed and mortally wounded, more than any other Union infantry regiment during a single battle of the war.

Pohanka meticulously crafted the story of the regiment from its formation to the death of its last veteran. His decades-long research involved not only examining the service records of each of the more than 1,500 men who served but also interviewing many of their descendants. As a result, readers are treated to a narrative that is rich, detailed and free of some of the devices too often used in similar unit histories: filling in the blanks with details not directly involving the subjects; offering opinions on events and individuals not supported by the documentary evidence in question; or correcting the thoughts and opinions as expressed in that evidence when they don’t conform to conventional wisdom. This is the story of the 5th New York, warts and all, told in Pohanka’s distinctive voice—familiar to thousands of enthusiasts thanks to his television appearances.

The final chapter chronicles postwar efforts by the war’s survivors to memorialize their comrades and, in so doing, themselves. Tracing the journeys of the regiment’s veterans to the death of the very last man—William McGuffage in 1940—is a fitting closing to what will likely be seen, along with his impressive legacy of battlefield preservation, as the definitive monument to Brian Pohanka himself.


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