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Gragg's engaging style and in-depth research present a highly readable account of the regiment, its leaders, and the men in the ranks.--The Civil War News
One of the most dramatic combat narratives ever written.--Military.com
Gragg presents an exceptional look at the rise and fall of the 26th North Carolina Infantry and their actions at the battle of Gettysburg.--The Journal of the North Carolina Association of Historians
"This exemplary book puts a human face on the 26th North Carolina's tragic loss at Gettysburg and is one of the [battle's] most original titles.--Publishers Weekly
Up ahead, death awaited some of them.
Lieutenant Colonel John Randolph Lane understood that grim fact, but at the moment he was distracted by a wave of nausea. After a bone-wearying two-week march from Virginia to Pennsylvania, his regiment and the rest of General Robert E. Lee's army were finally about to fight the Yankees on Northern soil. A mile or so up the road now crowded with Confederate troops, the smoke of battle was rising from a crossroads hamlet called Gettysburg. In the distance, Lane could hear the sputtering toll of small arms fire and the slam-slam-slam of artillery fire. The men of his regiment were moving steadily toward the sound of the guns, but Lane feared his nausea might force him to fall out. Was it bad water or a case of pre-battle jitters? He was unsure. He had been up all night overseeing the brigade picket line, had eaten practically nothing for breakfast and had unwisely gulped down several big swallows of muddy water. Now he felt so nauseous he wondered if he could do his job in the fighting that lay ahead.
Tall and erect, Lane was a robust man with a stocky build. He was three days away from his twenty-eighth birthday, but a chest-length black beard made him look older. Despite his uniform of Confederate gray, he looked more like a farmer than an army officer. Before the war, he was a farmer, turning over the sod every spring in the rolling fields of central North Carolinas Chatham County. He had the hardy look of a man accustomed to the outdoors — a strong face with rough-hewn features — but healso projected a natural dignity that befitted his current occupation. Lieutenant Colonel Lane was now second in command of the 26th North Carolina — one of the largest infantry regiments in the Army of Northern Virginia. His men revered him, and he returned their esteem. Most of the regiment's shirkers were gone now; the last handful had been shaken loose by the hard march north and the prospect of battle. What remained was a regiment of more than 800 well-drilled fighting men.
A year earlier, Lane had endured a hellish night on the battlefield at Malvern Hill with these men. Now, exactly one year later — Wednesday, July 1, 1863 — he was heading with them into what appeared to be an even greater battle. Would he be too ill to exercise command? They were approaching Gettysburg from the west, marching on a well-used highway called the Chambersburg Turnpike. Up the road before them they could see a series of ridges, and from atop the crest of a distant ridge, on the outskirts of Gettysburg, Federal troops appeared to be pouring fire into the Confederate troops ahead. In response, the Confederates — Third Corps troops of Heth's Division — were spreading out in a long battle line on both sides of the pike. The men of the 26th advanced up the road in formation as the chaotic sounds of heavy fighting increased, muffling the rhythmic tread of the marching men. As the troops leading the regiment crested a ridge, Federal artillery fire suddenly shrieked down from the morning sky and exploded on the road just steps ahead. It was their first fire of the battle, and it came unexpectedly, jarring the marching column with a concussion and a loud blast of smoke, flame and debris. The men in front wavered, and the column seemed to hesitate.
"Steady, men!" boomed a calm but authoritative voice. It belonged to the regiment's commanding Officer, Colonel Henry King Burgwyn Jr. Moving alongside the column on horseback, Burgwyn shouted encouragement to the troops, and they regained their step. "Steady, boys, steady," he urged them, and the measured tread of the march resumed. Moments later, Burgwyn ordered the men off the road. They deployed along to their right behind a row of Confederate artillery pieces, and prepared to form a line of battle.
The cool-headed response to the incoming artillery fire was typical of Colonel Burgwyn. He had a reputation in the 26th as a steady man in a time of danger — and one who always put his troops first. He was also known for his youth: Colonel Henry King Burgwyn Jr. was twenty-one years old. Even in an army of so many young men, such youthfulness was exceptional. Yet, Burgwyn's troops followed him devotedly. The Colonel was "cool under fire," proclaimed one of his men, and always knew "exactly what to do." A year earlier, a brigade commander had sparked protests when he tried to block Burgwyn's promotion because of his youthfulness. Soon afterwards the 26th had transferred to another brigade. Now, as the regiment moved into battle at Gettysburg, Burgwyn enjoyed even greater loyalty from his men, who knew he would never send them anywhere he would not go. The young officer had not always enjoyed such enthusiastic support. Lieutenant Colonel Lane could remember when Burgwyn was the most despised man in the regiment.
Lane was a fresh recruit the first time he saw Burgwyn. It was a warm August morning in 1861. He and his company — the Chatham Boys — had just arrived at Camp Carolina, a large training post established about three miles northwest of Raleigh at Crabtree Plantation. The Chatham Boys had arrived by train in the night and could see little in the darkness. In the moming, Lane awoke to a sprawling encampment — rows of tents, smoking campfires and hordes of coughing, laughing, yelling recruits. Looking at the rifle-toting sentries patrolling the boundaries of the camp, Lane suddenly realized the four-month-old war that had seemed so distant was a serious reality. In their fumbling adjustment to soldiering that morning...
Posted April 26, 2010
Writing a regimental history can be tricky. Their is a delicate mix between combat and camp. How much time do you spend on the raising of and training the regiment? How much personality and internal politics can the book contain? Can the author introduce enough people to build a human face or will we have one story after another? Additionally, the regiment's service needs to be something the reader can understand. An emphasis on one element means another is slighted or the page count grows. When an author finds the right mix, the results are entertaining and informative.
The 26th North Carolina has the distinction of the highest causality rate of any regiment in the Civil War. On the first day at Gettysburg, the regiment suffered badly fighting the Iron Brigade on Herr Ridge. Two days later, they were part of Picket's Charge. They went into the battle one of the larger regiments in the Army of Northern Virginia and came out one of the smallest.
Rod Gragg captures the 26th, drawing a word picture that is both personal and professional. He keeps the events and personalities in perspective placing emphases where needed. This results in an interesting story that never lags. The heart of the book is the battle for Herr Ridge and Picket's Charge. This is some of the best most realistic Civil War combat writing I have read. To say that the author puts the reader on the firing line is an understatement. We have enough knowledge to recognize causalities and understand the personal and professional loss. It is hard to write history that is a page-turner but the author did that.
This is a regimental history. As such, the concentration is at the regimental level with some consideration of Brigade. This is not a history of the battle for Herr Ridge or Picket's Charge but of one regiment's role. This is as it should be we only notice what is happening on the right or left when it affects us.
There is less information from Gettysburg to Appomattox but the writing is excellent capturing the heartbreak and dissolution of an army. "I was once a Soldier" and "Steadfast to the Last" cover the years after the war. These were years of pain, loss and reconciliation as the veterans age and the war's memory is written.
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