H-Net Review [H-CivWar]: Kirk on Lowenthal, 'A Yankee Regiment in Confederate Louisiana: The 31st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in the Gulf South'

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From: H-Net Staff via H-REVIEW <h-review@...>
Date: July 27, 2020 at 11:47:27 AM EDT
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Subject: H-Net Review [H-CivWar]:  Kirk on Lowenthal, 'A Yankee Regiment in Confederate Louisiana: The 31st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in the Gulf South'
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Larry Lowenthal.  A Yankee Regiment in Confederate Louisiana: The
31st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in the Gulf South.  Baton Rouge
Louisiana State University Press, 2019.  360 pp.  $48.00 (cloth),
ISBN 978-0-8071-7190-5.

Reviewed by Brianna Kirk (University of Virginia)
Published on H-CivWar (July, 2020)
Commissioned by G. David Schieffler

Larry Lowenthal's _A Yankee Regiment in Confederate Louisiana_ tells
the story of the 31st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which served
most of the American Civil War in Louisiana and the Gulf region. The
regiment is credited as the first Union regiment to enter New Orleans
after its capture and the Confederate evacuation in 1862. It also
served in a variety of roles--as infantry, mounted infantry, and
cavalry--and fought guerrillas in the Louisiana bayous. Yet its
relatively unique story of dignified service never made it into the
pages of an official regimental history, as the men of the 31st never
succeeded in writing one. Despite their late start in beginning a
veterans' association, they diligently collected material, conducted
interviews, and amassed accounts to write a detailed account of their
service. But the old veterans, including the regimental historian,
began passing away before anything could be published.

Lowenthal, a former National Park Service historian, set out to
accomplish what the men of the 31st Massachusetts did not--to write
the history of the oft-forgotten Massachusetts regiment whose Civil
War service has typically evoked criticism. After the discovery of
unprocessed diaries, manuscripts, and personal reminiscences in the
Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History in 2013,
Lowenthal committed to writing a "modern Civil War regimental
history," one that would benefit from the abundance of modern
scholarship and interpretations.[1] Writing the regimental history
now, instead of in the late nineteenth century, would also likely
remove any personal bias that modern historians often find plague
Civil War regimental histories and allow him to take a more "balanced
perspective" on many issues that would have generated "political
controversies" among Civil War veterans (pp. xii-xiii).

Lowenthal's methodology and source base for this modern regimental
history are fascinating. He draws largely from these unpublished and
unprocessed manuscript collections, boxes of material which had been
collected by the regiment's designated historian, L. Frederick Rice.
Chronology drives Lowenthal's account of the 31st Massachusetts from
their inception in 1861 to their journey south to Louisiana to their
service in the Gulf. Broken down into chapters that cover several
months at a time, this narrative structure allows readers to immerse
themselves in the soldiers' lives and to experience the flow of their
service alongside the men. Beginning with Benjamin Butler's
recruitment of New Englanders to serve in the Union Army, Lowenthal
traces how controversy plagued the 31st Massachusetts from the start
and continued through its service in Louisiana. An ongoing feud
between Butler and Massachusetts governor John A. Andrew--prompted
initially by Butler's recruitment efforts and his insistence on
appointing officers to those regiments--was felt throughout the ranks
of the 31st well into the war, as the men began to question why they
had not seen any major combat by the end of 1862. Despite the honor
of being the first Union troops to set foot in New Orleans after the
Union gained possession of the city in 1862, the 31st Massachusetts
found their regiment split up and relegated to coastal defense at
Fort Pike, Fort Jackson, and defending the rail lines to Jackson,
Mississippi, at Kennerville (now Kenner).

One of the most unique aspects of the 31st Massachusetts Regiment was
the variety of service they saw. Throughout the Civil War, these men
took on the role of infantry, mounted infantry, and cavalry. They
found themselves on guard duty, took part in siege warfare, and
fought guerrillas. The pace at which Lowenthal tells the 31st
Massachusetts's story accelerates as he begins describing their
involvement in the lead-up and attack on Port Hudson, Louisiana, and
continues with his account of their participation in the Red River
Campaign in early to mid-1864. In both of these instances,
Lowenthal's reliance on these newly acquired diaries and personal
papers increases, providing more rounded accounts of the soldiers'
experiences that texturize the reader's understanding of these
moments. It is in these chapters that Lowenthal provides a much
richer analysis of what the men of the 31st wrote and why. Examples
of their personal views on race, emancipation, African American
soldiers, and occupation come through, although including more
accounts would have reinforced that analysis more. Even more so, it
becomes evident that this regiment in particular recognized--perhaps
because of their limited exposure to combat or because of their
somewhat jaded view of their service--that their involvement in the
Gulf region was "little more than a distraction" to the overall war
effort compared to the campaigns in the East, and that the war "would
be decided far to the east of the Mississippi" (p. 187).

Writing a "modern regimental history" is a notable task, especially
when relying heavily on unpublished material gathered by the
regiment's members themselves. Lowenthal does leave some to be
desired, especially connections to current scholarship. For example,
his discussion of soldier opinions and views on race in the chapter
covering the first half of 1863 offers a great opportunity to connect
the soldiers' words to recent works on Union soldiers and their
changing attitudes toward emancipation, or how conceptions of their
masculinity shifted with experiencing no major combat compared to
their counterparts in the East.[2] Though there are hints of these
throughout, more explicit connections to larger trends currently seen
in the field of Civil War history are needed. Lowenthal does a nice
job of integrating the soldiers' own words into a seamless
descriptive narrative, but at many places--especially in the chapters
on Port Hudson and the Red River campaign--allowing the soldiers to
speak for themselves even more would have been a bonus.

Lastly, a final chapter taking the regiment from wartime service into
the Reconstruction and Gilded Age years--the prime time for
regimental histories--would have provided a fitting end to
Lowenthal's story, and the absence of such a chapter leaves readers
curious about what happened after the war's conclusion. When did
Rice, the regiment's historian, acquire the majority of accounts on
which Lowenthal's story is based? What was the process like for
Lowenthal as he wrote this, and what different shape does he think
the history would have taken had Rice accomplished his task? A
reflective end to this creative and interesting project would have
been welcomed.

Lowenthal breathes life into the men of the 31st Massachusetts
Volunteer Infantry and provides a captivating account of a regiment
that did not claim many crowning achievements like other
Massachusetts regiments did. But the disappointments and neglect felt
in their own time does not mean they should continue to be forgotten
today, as their service, experiences, and opinions of the Civil War
world in which they lived lend important insight into soldier
experiences that historians now and in the future will continue to
investigate. _A Yankee Regiment in Confederate Louisiana_ succeeds in
revealing ways modern historians can still benefit from Civil War
regimental histories, even from a distance of over one hundred and
fifty years later.


[1]. To explore these collections, see the website created by
Lowenthal and others to highlight their source base:

[2]. For more on Union soldiers' motivation, see Bell Irvin Wiley,
_The Life of Billy Yank_ (Indianapolis, IN: Charter Books, 1952);
Gary W. Gallagher, _The Union War__ _(Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 2011);_ _James McPherson_, __For Cause and
Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War__ _(Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1997);_ _Peter S. Carmichael, _The War for the
Common Soldier: How Men Thought, Fought, and Survived in Civil War
Armies _(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018); and
Chandra Manning_, What this Cruel War was Over: Soldiers, Slavery,
and the Civil War_ (New York: Knopf, 2007). For more on gender and
masculinity in the Union Army, see Lorien Foote, _The Gentlemen and
the Roughs: Violence, Honor, and Manhood in the Union Army_ (New
York: New York University Press, 2010).

Citation: Brianna Kirk. Review of Lowenthal, Larry, _A Yankee
Regiment in Confederate Louisiana: The 31st Massachusetts Volunteer
Infantry in the Gulf South_. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. July, 2020.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54965

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States