Book Review: “Forward, My Brave Boys!”
by M. Todd Cathey and Gary W. Waddey
Mercer University Press, 2015
Publishing seasons are replete with books about the American Civil War; great battles are re-fought, generals are given full-dress biographies, social patterns and governments are analyzed for the deeper truths they might yield about how a democracy could tear itself into two pieces and still survive. Authors will spend hundreds of pages looking for wisdom in Abraham Lincoln, nobility in Robert E. Lee, humanity in William Tecumseh Sherman, military genius in Ulysses Grant, or pathos in Jefferson Davis, and clashes like Antietam, Chancellorsville, and of course Gettysburg will be re-trod square inch by square inch. For over a hundred years, American historians have been characterizing the war as an epic along Homeric lines of scale.
Right alongside such publisher-friendly wide-angle efforts, there have always been departmental diggers, researchers driven by local interest or family folklore to delve into one company, one regiment, trekking along misty bottom-land in search of a field-marker mentioned in one forlorn letter home, or haunting yard sales in hopes of finding one frayed and faded old print, perhaps the long-bearded face of an old man whose black-hole eyes say, “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t forget about me entirely.”
These diggers have been compiling their regimental histories, chasing down artifacts, and swapping stories at meets for decades, and the works they produce sit on shelves in local historical societies and out-of-the-way heritage sites off State Route 29 or Interstate 40, seldom consulted, dusted by polite volunteers once every couple of months. The common conception is that there exists a large gap between the study of a single battalion and the study of the North v.s the South – the latter is the province of historians; the former is exclusively for wonks, buffs, and antiquarians.
The conception of this divide renders all the more curiously and immediately impressive the achievement of M. Todd Cathey and Gary W. Waddey, two card-carrying buffs of the first order, in their new book “Forward, My Brave Boys!”, a minutely-detailed history of the 11th Tennessee Volunteer Infantry from 1861 when it went to war until 1865 when its surviving officers and men stacked their guns in surrender. Both Cathey and Waddey are descendants of men who served in the 11th, and both have been researching the Civil War industriously for decades. By any reasonable expectation, their book should be five different kind of unreadable.
And yet, “Forward, My Brave Boys!” is, by some completely unexpected alchemy of memoirs and minutiae, the most fascinating and moving volume of Civil War history to appear in 2015. Somehow, by keeping its head down and going about its business, it manages to remind its readers of a war often lost in the operatic movements of grander histories – a war fought by very young men, most of whom didn’t have one single proper idea of what they were doing. When Cathey and Waddey relate the rocking-chair anecdotes their researches have uncovered (which they do whenever the story is a good one), those young men leap to life again – as in the story of an epic snowball fight between Tennessean and Georgian Divisions, or an 1861 incident near the Cumberland Gap:
One one occasion during this time, a Confederate soldier was out in the woods on picket duty. He was all alone and perhaps a little edgy thinking about the possibility of Federal troops being in the area. As the soldier watched through the woods for any sign of the enemy, he noticed something dark moving in the distance. The excited Rebel picket, with his mind racing, believed the object to be a masked battery. The Rebel picket steadied his nerves as best he could, took careful aim, fired a round, and skedaddled back to camp. After the frightened picket raised the alarm, an officer sent a reconnaissance patrol to investigate the whereabouts of the enemy. As the patrol arrived at the location of the incident, they discovered that the nervous picket had mistaken a bear for the masked battery. The bear was in the last agonies of death. Another soldier put the animal out of its misery, skinned it, and took the bear back to camp where it was eaten by the soldiers.
Since every single member of the 11th Tennessee Volunteer Infantry took up arms against the United States that had given them birth and succor their whole lives, every single member of the 11th Tennessee Voluntary Infantry was a traitor who deserved (as George Washington was fond of putting it about his own turncoats) to be hanged from the highest branch of the tallest tree, not paroled to go back to their farms and plow the earth so deep with rancor and racism that the crop is still coming in 150 years later. And yet, Cathey and Waddey’s book transforms and subverts such simple reductions with an ease that comes from being unintended. In their low-key handling, they turn these young men from names on a roster to recognizable characters – brothers, sons, friends.
Nowhere is this more cuttingly poignant than in the case of James Edward Rains, brigadier general of the 11th, the bookish son of a Nashville reverend who vehemently opposed secession. James Edward Rains graduated second in his class at Yale in 1854, married a lively and well-endowered young woman, and in his mid-20s was already advancing in the legal profession (after having done a stint as a newspaper editor) when the war broke out. He no more favored the cause than his father did, but he volunteered, was unanimously voted up the chain of command by his comrades, and was leading those comrades at the Battle of Murfreesboro in 1862 when he was shot through the heart before he reached the age of 30. His reputed final sentence is the book’s title.
To understand James Edward Rains is to grapple with an entirely more complex Civil War than the Pulitzer-winning volumes tend to present. To watch this bright-eyed young thinker and his equally fresh-faced comrades fight and fumble their way from engagement to engagement as weird amalgams of overgrown boys and seasoned fighting men is to track the twisty paths duty can take through the human heart. Following those tracks into the evening dews and damps has always been the unsung task of local, small-bore histories; Cathey and Waddey (and the staff at Mercer University Press) are owed a sincere nod of thanks for nudging this world center-stage for a while.