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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

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