Hood’s Texas Brigade
The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy’s Most Celebrated Unit
Susannah J. Ural
Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 2017, 384 pages
Book Review published on: February 15, 2019
The regimental, or unit, history was long a staple of Civil War literature. It was one of the first ways veterans of the conflict recorded their experiences, as they sought some memento of their wartime service and pooled funds together to ensure the production and publication of a written record of their singular contributions to the cause. The format retains popularity today, long after the last veteran departed the earth, as a framework for examining the collective experiences of soldiers from the same geographic locale. Though histories of U.S. Colored Troops (African American regiments) have dominated the recent literature, due largely to their exclusion from the first one hundred years of memorialization, authors still produce regimental histories, such as Lesley Gordon’s recent A Broken Regiment: The Sixteenth Connecticut’s Civil War, which uses the format to embrace the “dark turn” of Civil War historiography and push back against the heroic romanticism that dominates too much of the genre.
Susannah Ural’s contribution, of one of the more famous brigades in Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, thus comes at an interesting time for unit histories. Though partly a celebratory account of the soldiers of Hood’s Texas Brigade, the book seeks to integrate the story of the Texas home front more fully with the regiment’s battlefield exploits in Virginia, taking advantage of the methodologies of social history that have exploded over the past half-century and enriched the traditional “drums and bugles” accounts of the older military history. The result is a work that clearly demonstrates the importance of the connection between the Confederate home front and the war effort, fully justifying Ulysses S. Grant’s and William Tecumseh Sherman’s efforts to target this vulnerability in order to collapse the Confederate war effort. While, on the surface, Hood’s Texas Brigade reads as a triumphal narrative of the brigade’s service, endurance, and sacrifice, a closer reading between the lines reveals an excellent case study of how Confederate units failed to sustain themselves and ultimately collapsed under the weight of the war.
Ural is the codirector of the Dale Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Southern Mississippi and, as the author of a previously well-received study of Irish Civil War soldiers as well as a long-time resident of Texas, is specially qualified for the task she has undertaken. The book is a first-rate operational history, clearly and carefully detailing the brigade’s various engagements in Virginia and, briefly, Tennessee, but Ural’s attention to the Texas home front, including the communities that raised the various companies that comprised the brigade and the families left behind there, enrich the narrative far beyond the existing studies of the Texas Brigade. While including information on units briefly attached to the brigade, including the Eighteenth Georgia Infantry and Hampton’s South Carolina Legion, the work focuses on the First, Fourth, and Fifth Texas Infantry regiments and, to a lesser extent, the Third Arkansas, which replaced the Georgia and South Carolina units near the war’s midpoint.
The brigade suffered over five hundred casualties in its first battle, at Gaines’ Mill in the Peninsula Campaign, but is most famous for its repeated charges through the cornfield at Antietam, an action that cemented the brigade’s reputation but also cost it irreplaceable casualties and began a long downhill slide for the unit. With a 64 percent casualty rate across the brigade, including 86 percent in the First Texas, the brigade was in reserve for the engagements at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville before again playing an important role at Gettysburg, charging through the Devil’s Den toward Little Round Top. Here the brigade’s regiments again suffered heavy, and irreplaceable casualties, including Hood, now a division commander, the brigade commander, and three of four regimental commanders, as well as 54 percent casualties among the rank and file, that a brief sojourn in the western theater, including a minor role at the Battle of Chickamauga, did nothing to ameliorate.
As a result, throughout the decisive 1864 Overland Campaign in Virginia, the brigade rarely mustered over eight hundred effectives, an average of less than two hundred per regiment, or the equivalent of two full-strength companies. That decline, and an inability to sustain combat power through levies from the home front, exacerbated by the loss of the Mississippi River, which cut off communications with Texas, makes the brigade an effective microcosm of the Confederate war effort as a whole. Most of those who fully supported the cause were either dead or disabled, and many more potential soldiers in Texas and across the South could clearly see the futility of the sacrifice being made and wisely elected not to add their contributions to the altar. As a result, when the brigade again suffered an estimated 66 percent casualty rate in the Wilderness Campaign, it was effectively finished as a fighting force, and stalked with rumors of consolidation or disbandment for the remainder of its time in the service. The fall campaign in front of Petersburg “nearly destroyed” the brigade, and only 617 men surrendered at Appomattox.
The most interesting aspect of Ural’s work is the connection between the soldiers and their families back in Texas, including the definitive linkage between a decline in home front and battlefield morale, as well as the surprising post-war prosperity that the unit’s veterans enjoyed compared to nonveterans. This could reflect some benefit conferred upon them due to their status as veterans, or it could be indicative of the class divisions within the Confederacy, as wealthier slave owners or those more closely tied to the slave-based economy were more likely to support and participate in the war, while those who were less well-off were somewhat less likely to serve, distinctions that could have simply reemerged in the post-conflict era. The volume concludes with a brief summary of reunion activities and early efforts at commemoration, but has less to say about the veterans’ political activities and efforts to oppose the reconstruction of their native state, especially as members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Overall, the book is a welcome addition to the history of the war and will appeal to students of the conflict as well as lay readers interested in a compelling combat narrative. Given the tremendous amount of research the author has completed, some statistical analysis would have been useful, especially disease and mortality rates, along with disability discharges and desertions, which might shed some additional light on the ideological motivations the author argues for and the steady decline in combat power. It might also be worth asking why Texans in other fields, most notably Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign, did not enjoy the same success and notoriety as their colleagues on eastern battlefields, but these are minor quibbles with an otherwise excellent volume. Authors tackling histories of the Confederacy must always fight an uphill battle due to the dearth of sources, but Ural has assembled an excellent accounting of the soldiers who made the brigade’s famous legacy and the families at home that both motivated and sustained them.
Book Review written by: Christopher M. Rein, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas