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 Posted: Sun Mar 11th, 2007 03:22 am
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MAubrecht
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"Union Unit Earned Elite Status In Hard Fighting" By Michael Aubrecht
Date: 3/10/2007, Fredericksburg, The Free Lance-Star (Town & County)

[Teaser: Expertly researched, even-handed new book does justice to a storied Union regiment--the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, known as 'Rush's Lancers.']

Of all the branches that existed in the American military during the 19th century, perhaps none is as highly celebrated as the cavalry.

Even at the time of the War Between the States, many of these horse soldiers rapidly rose to celebrity status, as the tales of their service in the saddle became legendary. Much of this partiality was due to the swashbuckling personas of their commanders, including Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart and Union Gen. George Armstrong Custer. Both of these highly publicized men became larger than life, continuing to dominate much of today's Civil War memory. But for every one of these outlandish cavaliers, there were hundreds of other troopers from many regiments who also galloped into history.

One of those regiments was the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, known as Rush's Lancers. Considered by experts to be one of the finest volunteer cavalry regiments of the entire Civil War, the Lancers boast a storied history marked by hard combat and even harder riding. In February of 2000, one of America's most respected Civil War historians, Alexandria resident Brian Pohanka, heralded the 6th when he said, "A superb regiment, noted for intelligence, bravery and stalwart service, the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry was an elite outfit, in the truest sense."

Another well-respected historian, Eric Wittenberg, has published more than a dozen books on cavalry operations, including "Gettysburg's Forgotten Cavalry Actions" and last year's critically acclaimed "Plenty of Blame to Go Around: Jeb Stuart's Controversial Ride to Gettysburg." His latest title, "Rush's Lancers: The Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry in the Civil War," is a detailed study of this volunteer regiment and the remarkable men who made up its ranks.

In a well-rounded portrayal, Wittenberg presents the entire spectrum of the establishment, training, deployment and effective use of a federal cavalry regiment during the war. He also depicts the individuality of Rush's Lancers and describes what set those troops apart from their contemporaries. Unlike other units that were made up of citizen soldiers, the 6th Pennsylvania broke all status barriers and was assembled from Philadelphia's social elite and working class. Despite being amateurs, all of these soldiers proudly answered the call to preserve the Union, leaving their differences back on the home front.

One of the regiment's equalizing factors may have been the antiquated weapons issued when it was first deployed. As with many volunteer units formed after the start of the war, the 6th Pennsylvania was woefully lacking in supplies.

The regiment's nickname of "lancers" came about because each member was issued a 9-foot-long wooden lance tipped with an 11-inch-long steel blade. Copied from an Austrian pattern, each lance was topped by a scarlet pennant, which unfortunately became a bull's-eye for Confederate sharpshooters. As a novelty, this archaic weapon certainly set the 6th apart from other regiments, but as a last resort, it proved to be cumbersome and impractical in the Eastern Campaign.

Regardless of its medieval armaments, the 6th Pennsylvania identified itself with a proud lineage shared by the 1st Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry, a militia unit that was originally formed to serve as George Washington's personal bodyguard during the Revolutionary War. This honorable legacy carried over into the regiment's Union ranks and forged the foundation for its extraordinary service.

As with all of Wittenberg's studies, "Rush's Lancers" is filled with primary source material, including letters, diaries, memoirs, pension files, contemporary newspaper coverage and official records. Through a very thorough yet enjoyable narrative, the author takes the reader on a ride-along with the troopers as they carry on their prestigious legacy in engagements at Hanover Court House, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Brandy Station and Appomattox. It is a very impressive service record, to say the least.

Most impressive is the common bond that was formed by these uncommon brothers. The author does a wonderful job of depicting their battlefield experiences from the start of the war until its end.

More than Wittenberg's previous titles, this project is especially personal to the author for a number of reasons. In an e-mail interview, Wittenberg revealed what makes this particular book so special for him.

"It actually began with my attendance at Dickinson College, where I was a member of its 210th graduating class. Dr. Benjamin Rush, who was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, founded the university in 1773," he said. "That got me interested in the Rush family and its contributions. As a native Philadelphian, I was, of course, familiar with Dr. Rush's exploits. Later, when I learned that this regiment with the funny-looking weapons was raised by his grandson, it further interested me."

He added: "In 1992, I discovered the first regimental history, Samuel L. Gracey's 'Annals of the Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry.' The book was published using a quaint, old-fashioned type that interested me. I started studying the regiment and found name after name that a Philadelphian with an interest in history would recognize. My parents moved to Reading, Pa., when I was a child. Company G was from Reading and the commander of that company, George Clymer, came from a very prominent Berks County family. In fact, the most prominent pediatrician in town during my childhood was a direct, linear descendant of Maj. Clymer. As I started researching, I found that there was much more information out there. Once I got a sense of what was available, I decided to tackle the project. It literally took me 12 years to research and write this book. It truly was a labor of love."

Although Wittenberg's affection for this subject matter is apparent, the book that resulted from it is a testament to his talent and integrity as a historian. At no point in the narrative does he allow his own bias to tarnish the historical accuracy of the story. Instead, Wittenberg channeled his fondness for the 6th Pennsylvania into an extremely well-researched and -documented piece that will entertain and enlighten.

For more on Eric Wittenberg and "Rush's Lancers," visit rushslancers.com.

[Sidebar: About the Author: Eric J. Wittenberg is author of many acclaimed books on Civil War history, including "Gettysburg's Forgotten Cavalry Actions," "Battle of Monroe's Crossroads and the Civil War's Last Campaign" and "The Union Cavalry Comes of Age: Hartwood Church to Brandy Station." A native of Reading, Pa., this expert on cavalry has written more than 15 articles for national Civil War magazines. He is a business attorney in central Ohio.]

Michael Aubrecht is a Civil War author and historian who lives in Spotsylvania. Visit his Web site at pinstripepress.net or e-mail him care of gwoolf@freelancestar.com



 Posted: Mon Mar 12th, 2007 12:47 am
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CleburneFan
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Thanks for the great review. I read Wittensberg's book "Rush's Lancers" in January because I really admire Wittenberg's cavalry books. He brings  cavalry expeditions to life. I feel as if I were riding with the cavalry men and suffering with them during hours and days in the saddle often in driving rain, knee high mud or oppressive heat...on half rations to boot.

I don't normally read regimental histories, but did so because of the well-respected author. As it turned out I was not disappointed. It was so interesting to learn how a regiment is formed and how much training, drilling is involved and even training the horses in the case of cavalry. It also shows much of the tedium and discomfort of Civil War cavalry life.

It was also interesting to read about the evolution of the Sixth Lancers as they were divided, went to battle, lost members to injury and disease, changed officers, changed weapons, faced ridicule because of their lances (which they eventually abandoned), and performed with valor and gallantry, finally earning a very hard-won respect.  

I really enjoyed this book and have only one complaint. The print is so darned tiny and pale. It was a real challenge to my 63-year old eyes to read such a print style. I truly do understand why it was necessary to use such fine print because the book would be 1000 pages long otherwise, it is so packed with information. But I did have to keep my reading sessions short on this book in order to save my eyes.

This is an excellent book for those who have an interest in cavalry operations and the workings of a cavalry regiment. It adds new perspective and depth to what I know about Civil War cavalry.

A final note, I would LOVE too see Wittenberg write a book on Nathan Bedford Forrest. I'll wait as long as it takes.

 



 Posted: Mon Mar 12th, 2007 04:11 am
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Basecat
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Cleburne fan,

Be prepared for a long wait, as Eric is not a big fan of Forrest. :)  Highly doubt he will ever tackle that subject. 

Regards from the Garden State,

Steve Basic



 Posted: Mon Mar 12th, 2007 11:09 pm
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CleburneFan
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Basecat wrote: Cleburne fan,

Be prepared for a long wait, as Eric is not a big fan of Forrest. :)  Highly doubt he will ever tackle that subject. 

Regards from the Garden State,

Steve Basic

You are quite right. I know he doesn't admire Forrest...all the more reason to write that great book! But I can understand how hard it would be to try to write an objective and exhaustive account of someone you do not respect. It really would tax one's endurance and patience. Furthermore, because it is known that Wittenberg is not a fan of NBF's, critics would be quick to find fault with such a book no matter what extremes the writer went to in order to be fair and objective.



 Posted: Thu Mar 15th, 2007 01:47 am
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Eric Wittenberg
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Guys,

Many thanks for the kind words about the history of the Lancers.

That particular project was truly a labor of love for me, more so than any other book I have ever written.  There is more of me, more of my heart and soul, in that book than anything else I have ever written.  I can only hope that I did the boys justice.  If I did, it's as a tribute to them and not to me.

As you say, it's well known that I am not an admirer of Nathan Bedford Forrest.  I genuinely believe that a major part of his success is that he was never up against the best that the Union had until the fight with James Harrison Wilson at Selma.  I suspect that had he been up against the first team--instead of the junior varsity--he would not have had such a gaudy won-lost record.  The truth is that he had no real interest in the traditional roles of cavalry, and, with the exception of the retreat from Nashville, demonstrated absolutely no skill at those traditional roles. 

Sad to say, but you ought not be expecting a book on Forrest by me, because it won't be happening.  But I REALLY appreciate the vote of confidence.  It means a lot to me.

Eric



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