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Book Review: The Eighth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War by William A. Liska and Kim L. Perlotto

Liska, William A. & Perlotto, Kim L. The Eighth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War. McFarland. (2023). 290 pp., maps, illustrations. ISBN: 978-1-4766-9041-4 $45.00 (Paperback).

Book cover of The Eighth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War by William A. Liska and Kim L. PerlottoThe Eighth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War is the first unit history EVER written about the 8th Connecticut, a regiment which saw much action across four years of service, including with the 18th and 24th Corps at the Siege of Petersburg.  Authors Bill Liska and Kim Perlotto utilized numerous primary sources collected over thirty years to tell the tale of the 8th Connecticut in a traditional military history.  The book features numerous first-person accounts weaved into an exciting narrative, fine maps, and plentiful appendices.  It does justice to the men of this long-serving Union regiment who saw duty all along the Eastern seaboard in four different Union Army Corps.

Authors William A. Liska and Kim L. Perlotto have been studying the 8th Connecticut for decades, collecting first person accounts from the regiment throughout that time. In addition, they are part of a reenactment organization which portrays the Eighth Connecticut Volunteers, Co. A. Both authors reside in Connecticut.  Liska is a retired attorney and Perlotto is a retired computer scientist.  This appears to be their first published book.

Publisher McFarland, located in Jefferson, North Carolina, has a long history of producing Civil War books, especially unit histories.  McFarland books tend to be a bit more expensive than most non-academic presses, but this is due to their business model: “From the beginning, McFarland has been a library-oriented publisher, producing comprehensive reference works and scholarly monographs on a variety of subjects.” Despite the heftier price, most of the Civil War books I’ve read from this publisher have been very well done and often cover obscure topics which might otherwise never see the light of day. In addition, the prices for McFarland Civil War books only increase on the used book market.

The 8th Connecticut certainly had an interesting term of service, and it was a LONG one, lasting over four years from muster in to muster out.  They belonged to no less than four Union Army Corps (9th, 7th, 18th, 24th) over their lengthy service.  Organized and mustered in during late September to October 1861, the 8th Connecticut was earmarked for Burnside’s coastal North Carolina expedition of 1862.  They were in reserve at Roanoke Island and saw action at New Bern and during the Siege of Fort Macon.  They, with other regiments of the expedition, formed the core of Burnside’s new Ninth Corps and headed north, narrowly missing Second Bull Run before participating in the Maryland Campaign of 1862.  The 8th Connecticut fought at South Mountain and at Antietam, the latter day being their worst experience of the entire war.  There they lost nearly half of the 400 officers and men carried into action.  The regiment, perhaps as karmic grace, narrowly missed the worst of the action at Fredericksburg.

In early 1863, after Burnside’s abortive “Mud March,” the 8th Connecticut was pulled from the Ninth Corps and sent to southeastern Virginia for service with the Seventh Corps.  They spent most of that year in the vicinity of Suffolk and Portsmouth near the Great Dismal Swamp.  This year of garrisoning defensive posts was punctuated with two more exciting events, the Siege of Suffolk in April-May 1863 and their participation in the Blackberry Raid of June 1863, meant to prevent Richmond from reinforcing Lee at Gettysburg.

In 1864 the 8th Connecticut was again transferred, this time from the Seventh Corps to the Eighteenth Corps, Army of the James.  As part of the latter organization, they participated in Butler’s Bermuda Hundred Campaign, seeing action at Second Port Walthall Junction, Swift Creek, and Drewry’s Bluff. Drewry’s Bluff was potentially the one stain on their proud record, but the authors provide information as to why the criticism was unfounded.  The 18th Corps (with the 8th Connecticut in tow) were then sent to fight in the Battle of Cold Harbor, where they were involved in combat on June 1, 1864.  After Cold Harbor the 8th Connecticut was shipped by riverine transport back to Bermuda Hundred.

From there they advanced against Petersburg on June 15, 1864, the first day of the Second Battle of Petersburg.  With the rest of 18th Corps, the Connecticut men took portions of the Dimmock Line late that evening.  After the failure to capture Petersburg from June 15-18, 1864, both armies settled into a siege.  The 8th Connecticut spent good portions of the early months of the Siege of Petersburg near the far right of the Union lines. They faced Petersburg with the Appomattox River guarding their right flank.  They were near or involved in the June 24, 1864 Action at Hare’s Hill, though the book only covers this obliquely in a reference from a letter. Here too they were severely bombarded by Confederate batteries on the opposite side of the Appomattox river on June 30, 1864, though they suffered few casualties.  The 8th had a splendid view of the Battle of the Crater, which had less than splendid results for the Union.  The last major battle in which the 8th Connecticut participated occurred during the Fifth Offensive.  The 18th Corps assaulted Fort Harrison on September 29, 1864 and defended it against Confederate counterattacks the following day.  After being detached serve as Headquarters Guard of the 18th Corps, the regiment witnessed the Second Battle of Fair Oaks on October 27, 1864. They spent the rest of the Siege north of the James facing Richmond, the latter portions as a member of the newly formed 25th Corps.  The 8th was one of the units which entered the Confederate capital in early April 1865 and garrisoned the city in the following months.  They were finally mustered out on December 12, 1865, much later than most volunteer regiments, after over four years of service.

The Eighth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War is an important new book for several reasons.  It is the first regimental history ever published on the Eighth Connecticut.  The book also covers an Army of the James regiment.  The stories and experiences of the Army of the James at Petersburg tend to get overshadowed by those from Army of the Potomac.  The authors spent decades collecting primary source material on the 8th Connecticut from libraries, archives, and private owners.  They decided to write a traditional unit history, focusing mostly on where the regiment went and the battles in which it participated.  Liska and Perlotto did a fine job in the execution, though the Siege of Petersburg section felt a little disjointed with some gaps in the coverage.  This is almost certainly due to the waning number of good writers as casualties and sickness took their toll, an issue which often occurs in unit histories for units fighting late in the war. The somewhat disjointed Petersburg coverage may also be due to the relative inactivity of the regiments north of the James River for lengthy periods of time, especially after the Fifth Offensive ended in mid-October 1864. Despite this minor issue, the authors have a fine grasp of general Civil War knowledge as well as the more detailed knowledge of some rather obscure campaigns in which the 8th Connecticut fought.

Liska and Perlotto utilized the voices of 8th Connecticut men early and often in this traditional military history.  To make this work, they needed to do a LOT of research tracking down primary accounts.  And did they ever!  Sergeant Seth Plumb and Captain Charles M. Coit, who led the regiment for lengthy periods during the Siege of Petersburg, are two of the men who particularly stand out for their descriptions and the amount of surviving material.  The authors managed to find no less than twenty-one primary sources scattered in archives, libraries, and private hands.  These men are allowed to tell the story of their regiment long after death.  Liska and Perlotto are to be credited for the way they weave the story together and the amount and quality of the material they chose to include.  I wish they would have included even more from Captain Coit for my own selfish reasons!

Maps in regimental histories are often hit or miss.  Many utilize generic public domain maps with no indication of where the regiment in question was located. Thankfully The Eighth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War is NOT such a book.  The authors have included many excellent maps, both at a regional level and at the more granular tactical level.  Multiple maps are included for several key battles in which the 8th Connecticut fought and show different times on the same day.  Antietam and Second Port Walthall Junction especially receive a lot of attention.  I may have missed this, but I could not ascertain who was responsible for the maps, leading me to believe one of or both authors was/were responsible.  Whoever did the maps, credit goes to the authors and McFarland for recognizing their importance and making sure they were included in such numbers and detail.  These maps greatly increased this reviewer’s understanding of the more obscure campaigns of the 8th Connecticut.

The appendices also stand out and deserve recognition.  Appendix A is a standard record of service, showing battles, key dates, and organizational structure. The authors utilized Dyer’s Compendium and the Official Records for much of this material.  Appendix B is my favorite portion of the appendices, giving sometimes detailed biographies of key players in the 8th Connecticut, including many of the men whose voices come through in the narrative.  Images of many of these men were included, often from private collections.  These add to the quality of the biographies. Appendix C looks at the flags of the 8th Connecticut used during the war, including images of those still extant.  Appendix D covers the arms and equipment used in the war by the regiment.  Their flank companies were armed with Sharps Breech-loaders from the start, and they often were utilized as skirmishers as a result. Appendix E is a nice advertisement for the modern reenacting group to which the authors belong.  Members of the organization provided key support for the authors while they wrote this book.  Appendix F is a rare one for this reviewer.  It covers a bibliography of sources used to create the excellent maps in this book.  Other than potentially missing an opportunity to consult Richard Sommers’ masterful book on the Fifth Offensive at Petersburg or Will Greene’s first book in a Siege of Petersburg trilogy for Second Petersburg, the authors seem to have looked over a wide variety of sources to create these maps.  The time spent researching shows in the quality of the end result.

The Eighth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War would be important solely as the first book to cover the 8th Connecticut, but it is so much more.  The authors, long-time researchers and reenactors of the unit, have spent three decades compiling the material for this book.  The men of the 8th Connecticut are allowed to tell their own tale. It is almost as if they themselves put out their own regimental history in the late 19th Century, a result the authors consciously set out to achieve. Readers interested in the war in the Eastern Theater, especially Antietam, the lesser-known seacoast operations, Bermuda Hundred, and the Siege of Petersburg will want to own this book.  Those interested in Connecticut and her participation in the war will also find it useful and informative.  Collectors of unit histories will find the book particularly well done, especially the maps. This first ever unit history of the 8th Connecticut is highly recommended, and its Petersburg section is useful to students of the campaign.

Reviewer’s Note: A review copy of this book was sent for the purposes of this review.

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