A Military History

William A. Pencak, Christian B. Keller, and Barbara A. Gannon

Westholme Publishing, Yardley, Pennsylvania, 2016, 303 pages

Book Review published on: June 30, 2017

Pennsylvania: A Military History is one of four existing books in the Westholme series on state military histories (along with Ohio, Missouri, and New Jersey). The series is written for the general reader, with the objective of capturing each state’s unique military history. This book follows a logical, chronological approach to Pennsylvania’s military history, organized around major military events. In addition to the historical narrative, authors William Pencak (now deceased), Chris Keller, and Barbara Gannon provide a most valuable appendix on Pennsylvania’s military monuments, historical sites, museums, and memorials.

As one might expect, it is impossible to limit any state’s military history to its borders. Rarely did any major military conflict occur exclusively within a state’s geographic boundaries; Pennsylvania was no exception. Given Pennsylvania’s location and history, the most extensive chapters of the book center on the colonial, American Revolution, and Civil War eras. These events were part of much larger national or international conflicts, but the authors effectively integrate Pennsylvania’s role and contributions to each. Pencak’s chapters on early Pennsylvania establish a solid foundation to understand the colony’s and the state’s military heritage. The irony of Pennsylvania’s genesis as a “peaceable kingdom” built on violence is not lost on the reader. The persistent violent and nonviolent conflict with Native Americans, such as the Lenni Lenape (Delaware), within the colony’s jurisdiction and the extension of warfare to the Ohio Valley figure prominently in the state’s and America’s early history. The familiar events of Braddock’s defeat, the Battles of Bushy Run, Brandywine, and Germantown are well integrated into the book’s narrative, and they support the publisher’s objectives. The discussion of what most Americans would recall as Pontiac’s Rebellion, but what the authors convincingly argue is Pontiac’s War, provides a touch of historical debate that the average reader can appreciate. The discussion of the Sullivan Campaign provides some useful connectivity in Pennsylvania’s Revolutionary War experiences and the Nation’s involvement with total war.

While the book’s emphasis on colonial, revolutionary, and Civil War America is understandable, it also creates an imbalance in the overall narrative. Four of the thirteen chapters are eight pages or less. The longest chapter, the American Revolution, is fifty-six pages. This unevenness in chapter length is not necessarily a problem, but it does suggest that the work could have been better organized. For example, the chapter on the War of 1812 and the Mexican–American War contains five pages. Only one page is dedicated to Pennsylvania’s role in that conflict; I find it difficult to believe that there was not more to the Keystone State’s contributions. Two examples come to mind. Keller mentions that George B. McClellan “served with distinction during the U.S.–Mexican War” in his Civil War chapter, but there is no mention of what he did in the Mexican-American War chapter. Moreover, there is no reference of another notable Pennsylvanian, John W. Geary. While the authors had to make choices, leaving someone such as Geary out of the narrative is a shortcoming. In addition to his military contributions, Geary served as the first mayor of San Francisco, the third governor of territorial Kansas, and the governor of Pennsylvania following the Civil War. Excluding other extraordinary Pennsylvanians such as Herman Haupt and Montgomery Meigs is also disconcerting.

Even with these concerns, the two chapters on Pennsylvania and the Civil War are undoubtedly the best. These chapters are well written and nicely illustrated. Keller’s engaging narrative, coupled with the right amount of breadth and depth, makes his chapters the standard for a state military history. He masterfully balances the state’s massive contribution of personnel and materiel to the Union’s war effort while stressing the importance of race and ethnicity, women, and the home front.

The post-Civil War chapters tend to be relatively short and shallow. They do provide a general overview, but they lack the texture that early chapters provide. The role of the 28th Infantry Division is rightly emphasized in the two world wars, but more could be done to emphasize Pennsylvania’s role and contributions in these two major international wars. The approach of emphasizing Medal of Honor winners is interesting but does not convey the scope and scale of Pennsylvania’s military history during the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, or the more recent engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Pennsylvania has a rich and significant military history. This book has some shortcomings, but it does provide a distinctive and informative narrative on the Keystone State’s contributions to military, U.S., and international history. It is not for everyone, but for those readers who desire a comprehensive overview of Pennsylvania’s military history, this volume is a good start.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Tony R. Mullis, PhD, U.S. Air Force, Retired, Redstone Arsenal, Alabama