Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Author Q & A: Lesley Gordon's 'A Broken Regiment'

The 16th Connecticut was routed in John Otto's cornfield at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862.
 The monument to the regiment was dedicated on Oct. 8, 1894.

Inexplicably thrown into the fighting at a critical juncture at Antietam, its first battle of the war, the 16th Connecticut was routed -- a debacle that defined the regiment. Many 16th Connecticut soldiers skedaddled on Sept. 17, 1862, one deserting and fleeing all the way to England. Less than two years later, nearly the entire regiment was captured at Plymouth, N.C., and sent to a Rebel prison in Andersonville, Ga., where many were among the nearly 13,000 Union soldiers who died there. 

While much has been written about Antietam and Andersonville, comparatively little has been written about the hard-luck 16th Connecticut, which was recruited mainly from prosperous Hartford County communities such as Hartford, Avon, Bristol, Farmington and Glastonbury and elsewhere. Due out in November, Lesley Gordon's book, A Broken Regiment (Louisiana State University Press), aims to fill that void.  A professor of history at the University of Akron, Gordon spent 10 years researching the book, combing through diaries, old newspapers, soldiers' letters and a trove of documentation on the regiment at the Connecticut State Library in Hartford. 

"I knew I couldn’t write 1,000 individual biographies -- how could I say something fresh and different about this group of individuals?" wrote Gordon in explaining the lengthy process of researching and writing the book. "It took me a long time to figure that out." Gordon, who grew up in East Granby and Simsbury in Connecticut, recently took time out to answer my questions about A Broken Regiment.

Lesley Gordon's book, A Broken Regiment, will be available
 in November 2014.
Let's get right to the title of the book, A Broken Regiment. Why did you call it that?

Gordon: The title comes from a quote -- a Rhode Island colonel referred to the 16th CV at Antietam as a “broken regiment,” in describing their rout and his own unit’s (the 4th RI’s) collapse.  I like how it also speaks to the 16th’s general state after the battle, where they struggled to replace their numbers and their morale.  They never really did; less than two years later they were captured at Plymouth and most spent months at Andersonville. There were moments of hope when members talked of “regeneration,” believing they had moved on from the debacle at Antietam, but they never really did recover. Also, the title underscores the notion of a “broken” narrative; many of these soldiers struggled to make sense of their experience and construct a familiar, in many ways, heroic story about themselves (as Civil War soldiers often did). But their experiences didn’t quite fit. There were just too many jagged edges.

The book took more than a decade to complete. Why did it take so long?

Gordon: There are a few reasons why this took me so long -- I became involved in other projects, including a CW textbook This Terrible War and editing two essay collections.  I also became editor of Civil War History.  But I also had so much material -- the George Q. Whitney papers at the Connecticut State Library, for example, are very large and chock full of rich materials. I read through as many soldiers’ letters and diaries as I could, as well as the major local newspapers, transcribing, sifting, and thinking for a long time about what to do with all this information.  It was a challenge for me after writing a biography (My first book, General George E. Pickett in Life and Legend). I knew I couldn’t write 1000 individual biographies -- how could I say something fresh and different about this group of individuals? It took me a long time to figure that out.

Author Lesley Gordon on the 16th Connecticut: 
 "There were moments of hope when members 
talked  of  'regeneration,' believing they had moved 
on from the debacle at Antietam, but they never 
really did recover."
Much has been written, of course, about Antietam, the 16th Connecticut's first battle of the war. What new did you learn about the regiment's experience there?

Gordon: I already knew the basic contours of their experience -- that is what first drew me to their story (Stephen Sears’description of them in Landscape Turned Red).  What struck me as I dug deeper was how quickly their individual (and candid) accounts of panic, anxiety and sheer terror evolved into a story of heroism. You can see a transformation within a matter of weeks in soldiers’ letters and in newspaper accounts. I found that process fascinating.

Tragically, many soldiers in the regiment died at Andersonville, the most notorious Civil War prisoner of war camp. What story about the regiment's experience there stands out most?

Gordon: Probably the fact that several members accepted Confederate paroles to leave the pen. This is something denied or glossed over in the public record and in most published accounts -- but prisoners talked about it openly and bitterly in their diaries.  It was a shameful thing on one level to do such a thing; but it also became a simple matter of survival for others.

More than a dozen soldiers in the 16th Connecticut, including Lieutenant Colonel John Burnham and Private Bela Burr, ended up in insane asylums after the war. Can this be tied directly to their war experience?

Gordon: I can’t make a direct tie, but it has made me wonder.  I’ve been able to confirm 16 members classified as “insane.” It is important to note that in the mid-19th century, this term did not necessarily mean the same thing as it does today; nonetheless, given this unit’s unique and uneven service, especially their long imprisonment, I do think there may well be a connection.

Not all stories about the regiment involve tragedy. Are there any soldiers who either during the war or post-war could be called heroes?

Lieutenant Colonel John Burnham
died in an insane asylum after 

the Civil War. (Mollus Collection)
Gordon: Three in particular come to mind:  Color Corporal Ira Forbes, Lieutenant Bernard Blakeslee and Lieutenant Colonel John Burnham. Each of these men exhibited undeniable personal bravery in battle, a deep commitment to the war and a love for their regiment. Forbes in particular is credited with helping to save the regimental colors at Plymouth, which were torn and preserved by many members, even while imprisoned.  But their stores are not without complications:  Forbes wrote extensively about the unit (and individual members), after the war, yet he ended up alienating his closest friends and former comrades when he began expressing (and publishing in local newspapers) apologetic views toward the former Confederacy, especially on the issue of race; Blakeslee authored the only complete regimental history of the 16th, but stirred controversy because he angrily insisted that Confederates “massacred” African-Americans at Plymouth; and Lieutenant Colonel. Burnham drew anger and resentment when he sought to discipline the troops. Each of these men ended up committed and dying in the Hartford Insane Asylum.

Finally, what do you hope that the reader takes away from your book?

Gordon: The 16th Connecticut had a unique military service; yet they sought desperately to make it fit into a larger conventional narrative of gallant soldiers and glorious battles.  I hope readers will see how important those ideals were to mid-19th century Americans (and remain to present-day Americans); but also that much of what they endured was not that uncommon at all: their failings and disappointments, their anger and resentments were all part of the human experience, particularly in a war of this scope.

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