“I began to realize what camp life is, when I washed my face & hands in a horse bucket and wiped them in my handkerchief.” In this way young George Bernard of Petersburg, Virginia described his early experiences soldiering with what was to become the Army of Northern Virginia.
Bernard, who was a lawyer by trade and who would become a successful legislator in his home county after the war, lived through the Civil War and participated in nearly every major engagement fought in the eastern theater of operations. Bernard was paroled out of the Confederate Army at Appomattox and left the war as a grizzled veteran.
A reluctant fighter at first, Bernard lived through all the dangers, boredom, loneliness, comradeship, and suffering that veteran combat soldiers experienced in America’s costliest war.
By war’s end, Bernard had fought in places such as Antietam, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Petersburg, South Mountain, and the Seven Days Campaign. In addition, Bernard fought in a number of smaller scale engagements, some of which were even more costly to his regiment than the major battles they participated in.
When Bernard left Confederate service, he ended his formal ties with a unit that in many ways defined a significant portion of his entire life.
That unit was the 12th Virginia Infantry, and it is the subject of this recent and thoroughly engaging regimental history.
In The Petersburg Regiment in the Civil War historian John Horn brings to life the men who served in 12th Virginia.
The 12th was originally mustered into Confederate service on April 20, 1862. Made up of militia companies that pre-dated the war, the 12th included men whose active service under arms included historic events. Men in several of the 12th’s companies served as part of the security detail that accompanied John Brown on the day of his execution.
Once formed, the men of the 12th set about to elect officers for their unit. One man, whose background included active military service in the Mexican War as well as being an instructor at a noteworthy southern military school, was put up for election as the first colonel of the 12th.
However, this particular veteran officer was seen as too rigid and eccentric for the men of the 12th so they passed on selecting him to shepherd them through the beginning of their military service. That officer was Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and, despite the 12th’s rejection of him, his leadership was to have a significant impact upon the fate of men in the new regiment regardless of their rejection of him.
It is anecdotes such as the 12th’s vetoing of Stonewall Jackson as their colonel or the fact that John Wilkes Booth served in one of their companies prior to the war, that lifts this regimental history into the realm of excellence.
Horn takes his time in laying out not only the tactical successes and failures of the 12th Virginia but also tells the story of the men who made up this fighting regiment.
Using ample primary sources, Horn is able to detail the lives and deaths of unit members set against the backdrop of their storied service.
The 12th was not a renowned regiment, and even came under fire from other southern units and the Confederate press, for its early war efforts at Seven Pines.
However, by war’s end, the 12th paid full measure to its country via its service.
Over the course of the war, the 12th was part of the litany of battles fought by the Army of Northern Virginia.
Men in this regiment fought and died in the major battles that Robert E. Lee fought. By war’s end, over 10% of the men who served at any time in the 12th were killed in battle, succumbed to wounds, died of illness, or perished in Union prison camps.
This rate of lethality would qualify the 12th as one of Fox’s Fighting 300 Regiments. Ironically, the two engagements which cost the 12th its highest casualty figures were at Crampton Gap during the South Mountain engagement and in the fight at Globe Tavern during the Petersburg campaign.
In those two battles the 12th suffered 57.3% and 41.4% casualties respectively.
These losses topped what the 12th lost in larger battles even though they fought in terrible situations inclusive of the Bloody Lane at Antietam, The Crater, and near the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania.
This pattern of loss, as Horn points out in this compelling book, reinforces the fact that for some regiments it was not so much the grandness of an engagement that exacted an individual unit’s toll but the specific circumstances that soldiers faced at given moments in any battle.
In recreating the story of the men of the 12th Virginia, Horn pulls no punches.
While Horn’s narrative does justice to the comradeship, accomplishments, and bravery of many of the men who served in the 12th, the author touches on grittier elements of their service. Where there was bravery there was also cowardice. Several members of the 12th were courts martialed and sentenced to death for failure to fulfil their duties. In some instances, these men were given a second chance to carry out their duties and avoid the firing squad. Horn recounts several instances where men sentenced to death redeemed themselves and lived on. In other situations, men deemed cowards by a military court did not redeem themselves and were gunned down by their own comrades. These executions, and all their attendant grimness, are clearly described by Horn. Similarly, the clash of battle is vividly described by Horn, often using the words of members of the unit. Horn also is unflinching in recording the horrors of battle and the effect it had on the men who endured combat. Of particular force are Horn’s description of combat during the fighting at The Crater, where soldiers in the 12th, and other Confederate formations, gunned down African-American USCT prisoners by the dozens in a battle where no quarter was given to freedmen. The Civil War was a very bloody affair, and John Horn is very graphic in depicting the battles where the 12th Virginia fought.
Perhaps the strongest parts of this book are those which describe the daily life of common soldiers who were just trying to survive not just combat but also the difficulties of camp life, marching, and just trying to cope with the elements.
On page after page of this striking book readers will see the daily struggles of Civil War soldiers. Trying to stay warm in the winter, dry in rainstorms, or upright and able to march when footsore were issues that dogged not only the men of the 12th but many of the roughly three million men who served in the Civil War.
In Horn’s outstanding work, readers will see men leaving bloodstains in the snow as they march without shoes or feel lucky to be able to strip the dead foes to find suitable pants or coats. In Horn’s history, men at war leap off the pages as full-blooded figures and not just background extras in some sweeping tactical history. If you are interested in revisiting what it must have been like for the men of the 12th to serve, this is the book for you.
By the end of the war, the Army of Northern Virginia was a shadow of its prior glory.
The 12th served all the way to Appomattox and was part of the final surrender of Lee’s warriors. The men who survived their time of service with the 12th returned home to be with their families but they did so with memories that set them apart from those who had not served.
Horn does a nice job of tracking some of the individual soldiers who are part of his narrative and letting the reader know what they did after the war.
Horn also provides his readers with information throughout the book that will be of value to readers who wish to better understand just what these men did. Throughout the book Horn inserts 32 maps and 8 regimental diagrams that allow the reader to better grasp the tactical situations confronted by the 12th in its engagements.
In the final section of the book, Horn provides a series of three charts that detail the casualties suffered by the 12th and how they compared to other regiments both North and South. In addition, Horn includes photos of a number of men who served in the 12th and peppers them throughout the body of this fine work. These informational aides, linked to the wonderful narrative abilities that Horn possesses as a writer, makes The Petersburg Regiment in the Civil War: A History of the 12th Virginia Infantry from John Brown’s Hanging to Appomattox, 1859-1865 a first rate regimental history and a Civil War book that will appeal to any reader interested in this portion of U.S. history.
Title: The Petersburg Regiment in the Civil War: A History of the 12th Virginia Infantry
from John Brown’s Hanging to Appomattox, 1859-1865
Author: John Horn
Publisher: Savas Beatie