'My Brave Boys': Dying for a bequest

April 08, 2001|By Neil A. Grauer | Neil A. Grauer,Special to the Sun

"My Brave Boys: To War with Colonel Cross & the Fighting Fifth," by Mike Pride and Mark Travis. University Press of New England. 323 pages. $27.95.

According to a typically helpful staffer at Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library, approximately 4,000 books on the Civil War can be found stacked on 200 shelves in the Central Library's Social Sciences and History department.

Do we really need another such book? After 136 years, haven't the depths of that brutal, tragic conflict been explored enough?

You might think so when presented with "My Brave Boys," a 320-page account of the hitherto-forgotten Fifth New Hampshire regiment. And you would be wrong.

New Hampshire journalists Mike Pride and Mark Travis write that they know the tale of the "Fighting Fifth" basically is "a compelling local story [albeit a dated one]," but they have done a splendid job weaving together the history of this all-volunteer regiment -- told almost exclusively through primary sources such as letters, diaries and memoirs. With judicious editing and deft narrative skill, they have produced an account that is remarkable enough to engage the attention of anyone interested in the Civil War.

Led by a fierce, impulsive, yet inspiring commander, erstwhile journalist Col. Edward Ephraim Cross, the 1,183-man regiment saw service in an astonishing array of critical battles: Richmond, Antie-tam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. They paid a deadly price. After Gettysburg, only 156 of the original volunteers were left.

"Two thousand regiments fought in Union armies during the Civil War. None -- not one -- suffered more deaths in combat than the Fifth," Pride and Travis write. Among the dead were Colonel Cross himself, shot clean through his midsection at Gettysburg.

In an unfinished poem, Cross had written: "It's tramp and hurrah for the Fifth! They were there!" So they were -- in the mud, the dust, the rain, the cold, the heat, the filth and some of the war's most horrific fighting. Incredibly, a veteran of the Fifth -- Dr. William Child, a regimental surgeon -- even was in Ford's Theatre the night Lincoln was assassinated.

The grunt's-eye-view of these citizen soldiers sometimes is evoked with surprising eloquence -- and immediacy. Child even began a letter in the midst of a barrage at Antietam, scribbling to his wife: "What more I was about to write above I have forgotten for just then bang-whizz came the shells & balls from a rebel battery."

After Chancellorsville, Child would write: "Groans and cries were continually coming on the chilly night air, while whip-poor-wills caused a strange, woeful chorus hour after hour. ..." He also had no illusions about the effectiveness of his medical care: "I should much rather be killed outright than linger in a hospital with a severe wound."

With similar forthrightness, Pride and Travis acknowledge an uncomfortable fact: most of these New Englanders opposed abolition and insisted that they were not fighting to end slavery. Cross himself was a Democrat, a pre-war supporter of Stephen A. Douglas. His soldiers said they were fighting to save the Union, the government they believed had been bequeathed to them by their grandfathers, who had fought in the Revolution. And they willingly sacrificed their lives to preserve its freedoms -- even if they were reluctant to give them to black people.

A journalist and caricaturist for more than 30 years, Neil A. Grauer is the author of five books, including "Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber." A former reporter for the Baltimore News American, he now works for the Johns Hopkins University's School of Professional Studies in Business and Education.

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