When the American Civil War broke out with the shelling of Fort Sumter in April of 1861, few people believed it would be anything more than a noisy spat which would lead to a negotiated settlement in short order. Yet, before its end at Appomattox Court House in April, 1865, it would become – as it remains – the costliest of all American conflicts. During its four bloody years, nearly four million men and boys would wear the uniform of one side or the other, and virtually every family in the country would experience the loss of loved ones. With a total population of just over 30 million, the young country would see the bulk of its most promising manhood swept up in the grueling enterprise. Close to 80% of the male population of military age would serve, and in the South, the percentage was even higher.
During the first year or so, the bulk of the fighting men on both sides was supplied by local militia units, recruited, uniformed and organized by the individual states. Often, an entire regiment would come from a single county, and would forever afterward identify itself that way, even (and perhaps especially) after coming under the national colors. Among those whose histories I have researched with an historian’s special affection are the 8th Vermont, the 20th Maine, the 69th New York and the 14th Brooklyn (Zoaves). In a few cases, I have been lucky enough to obtain hand-made replicas of their regimental colors to add to my collection of historical American flags.
In some important instances, those regiments were combined into Brigades of 4,000 to 6,000 men, bound forever to the state or states which sponsored them, before going off to war. The brigades which have captured my particular fascination , one of which I choose to write about today, continue to stir admiration among Civil War “buffs” because they have carved out their own unique place in history. When asked WHY, the best way I can explain it is to point out the ways in which they differed from other contemporary fighting units.
To begin with, they were volunteers, deeply devoted to a “cause”, and to each other. They were motivated by a profound sense of duty to what they saw as the defense of their liberties, and this was particularly true in the case of men of the South, to an extent still not fully understood by historians with a deeply-imbedded “northern” predisposition. What’s more, theirs was a very “public” display of heroism or hesitancy; the guy fighting on either side of each was, after all, a neighbor from back home. What cannot be denied is that these men fought with a dedication, and even an élan not matched by the mostly-conscripted ranks of regular soldiers.
I think, for instance of the Irish Brigade, made up of three New York regiments of Irish immigrant volunteers, joined by the 28th Massachusetts and the 116th Pennsylvania. Then there was the “Iron Brigade” – volunteers from Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana – also known as “The Black Hat Brigade”, given a wide berth by enemy units who knew of their “never retreat” reputation. These men in their high black hats and feathers suffered the highest casualty rate by proportion of all Union fighting units.
After all this, I have a special place in my pantheon of Civil War units of distinction for a Confederate fighting force known to history as “The Orphan Brigade”.
Despite the fact that their “border state” chose to stay with the Union, a significant number of young Kentuckians felt a deep allegiance to the Southern cause, coming together at Bowling Green in the autumn of 1861 to be organized ultimately into five regiments destined to fight throughout the war as a Kentucky Brigade. These 5000 volunteers thus made themselves “traitors” and “criminals” in the eyes of their own state, and would never again really have a “home to return to”.
For the next four years, the “Orphan Brigade” – so named because they really had no one to write them letters, send them cookies, shoes and clothing and even pray for them – would see honorable action in virtually every battle and engagement in the war in the west, from Fort Donelson, Shiloh and Chickamauga to Kennesaw Mountain and the Atlanta campaign. In all, they would march, maneuver and fight in eight states, suffering the highest casualty rate of any Confederate unit of comparable size. In one period of 100 days of fighting in Georgia, only fifty men of their reduced number would not be wounded at least once. By the end of the war, only 900 of the original 5000 would still be standing and unable to comprehend “surrender”. At one point, after observing their fighting spirit and the price they paid over and over again, Confederate General John C. Breckenridge, (former U.S. Vice President under Buchanan), would be inspired to cry out, “Oh my poor orphans, my poor orphans !”
One of the most honored books on my Civil War bookshelf is a journal meticulously kept by John W. Green (1841–1920), who ended the war as Sergeant-Major, Company B, 9th Ky. Infantry, Confederate States of America. Throughout this narrative is an underlying respect for the soldiers on both sides, and especially for the valor of his fellow “Orphan” warriors. After Shiloh, he describes the death of a close comrade with tender and revealing emotions . . .”when he knew that death had marked him for his own, he said to me Johnnie if a boy dies for his country the glory is his forever isn’t it ?” We buried him with military honors in the soil of Mississippi, that far southern sister in whose defense many of our Kentucky boys gave up their lives.”
Postscript: Another “Orphan” diarist, Lot D. Young, who died in 1918 was buried with a U.S. Flag tucked under one arm, and a Confederate battle flag under the other. His pall bearers were made up of six fellow veterans of the CSA, and six soldiers of the North.