I finished up Alan Gaff’s If This Is War: A History of the Campaign of Bull’s Run by the Wisconsin Regiment Thereafter Known as the Ragged Ass Second last week. Based mostly on soldiers’ letters written to hometown newspapers, similar to the letters you can find here and here, this is great stuff. Now, you can find countless other micro-histories just like this, as long as the topic rhymes with Gettysburg. This volume is illustrative of the potential for literary contributions that exists for a market that outsiders doubtless view as saturated.
Gaff presents the soldier accounts less than critically, and I’m OK with that. For instance he reproduces various accounts of Daniel Tyler giving orders on the Sudley Road west of Henry House Hill. Of course Tyler was never anywhere in that area. I find it likely that members of the 2nd WI, less than familiar with their new division commander and probably only glimpsing him at a distance during the march to the battlefield, mistook the gray-headed and equally ancient-looking Samuel Heintzelman, who was in the area giving orders to whoever would listen, for Tyler. But that’s how the Badgers remembered things, and how they remembered things is what this book is all about. I suspect that If This Is War would be more widely read and recommended had it been more thoroughly annotated, and think that readers should be careful when using it. But as I said, all in all I’m OK with Gaff’s approach.