I have a great love for regimental histories. I buy a lot of them. Mostly, I need them for my work, but I really enjoy having them around. I like knowing what specific units did during the course of their careers, and I also find having the rosters, etc., useful. It really puts a human face on the men who fought the Civil War.
The vast majority of regimental histories were written in the thirty-five years between the end of the war and the end of the Nineteenth Century. Most of them were written by veterans of their units, and they were primarily written for the men of those particular regiments as a chronicle of their service during the war. Often, those original regimental histories were written by the regimental chaplains. The best ones include both a narrative of the regiment’s service as well as anecdotal material by the soldiers who served in the unit. They’re often filled with photos of the members of the unit. One of the best I’ve ever seen is the history of the 10th New York Cavalry, which includes photos of the members of the regiment, an excellent narrative, a complete roster, and lots of good anecdotal stuff.
One of the worst, by contrast, was that of the 3rd Indiana Cavalry. The 3rd Indiana is an unusual regiment. Half of it served with the Army of the Potomac, while the other half served in the Western Theatre. It made it difficult to document the regiment’s service, and the regimental history, by a fellow named William N. Pickrell, and published in the first decade of the Twentieth Century, doesn’t consist of much besides reports included in the Official Records. It is, for the most part, useless. Even though it’s incredibly rare, it’s okay, because it has little value.
So, here’s the problem. The old books, which were not printed with acid-free pape, tend to be extremely brittle and very fragile. The bindings often are delicate and falling apart. So, while I need the material, I’m afraid to use the books because they’re investments and I’m afraid of damaging them. Consequently, I’ve found a solution. I buy almost exclusively reprints, unless I find a great deal on a first edition, or it’s one that has special meaning to me (I own two of the 750 copies of the 1868 regimental history of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry published, including the personal copy of the author, Chaplain Samuel L. Gracey). The reprints are inexpensive enough that it doesn’t much matter if I mess one up, or if I write in it. Plus, I can usually buy three or four reprints for the price of one first edition. From a practicality standpoint, that’s a no-brainer for me.
There are three great sources for reprints. My current favorite is Ward House Books, a division of Higginson Books. They do replica reprints of the original editions, and are very faithful reprints. They’re inexpensive, no frills books–they’re done with simple library bindings–done print-on-demand, so it takes 3-4 weeks to get them when you place an order. Once or so a year, they have a significant sale with a 25% discount. They have some really rare titles–such as the history of the 1st New York Dragoons, which is one of the most rare of all of the regimental histories–and provide an invaluable service.
Then, there’s Jim McLean’s Butternut and Blue of Baltimore, which has done replica reprints of numerous Union and Confederate regimental histories that cannot be found anywhere else. Jim has done some excellent and very rare books such of Lt. George W. Beale’s A Lieutenant of Cavalry in Lee’s Army.
Finally, there’s Morningside House of Dayton, Ohio. This is a mixed bag at best. On one hand Morningside has done some fabulous books that cannot be found anywhere else, such as Dr. Abner Hard’s regimental history of the 8th Illinois Cavalry. Again, the books are no-frills and don’t have dust jackets. They’re functional but certainly not pretty. On the other hand, if you buy from Morningside, it means that you have to deal with the owner of the company, who is proud to be called an S.O.B. He is his company’s own worst enemy, which is a shame, because he was the trailblazer for the replica reprint business.
My own companies, first VanBerg Publishing, and then its successor, Ironclad Publishing, have done some high quality reprints of some very rare regimental histories–the Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry, the 9th Massachusetts Battery, the 9th New York Volunteer Infantry, and the 124th New York Volunteer Infantry. The problem is that we have found that these books don’t move quickly and that it’s very difficult for us to make back the money that we invest in them in anything close to a reasonable amount of time. Consequently, we made a concerted business decision to stop doing regimental histories about two years ago, and will no longer be doing them, simply because we find that they’re not a good investment for us.
Finally, there are some pretty good modern regimental histories being published, such as Rod Gragg’s study of the 26th North Carolina Infantry, as well as other good recent titles.
A major portion of my library is devoted to regimental histories. One can never have too many.Scridb filter