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Book Review: Through Blood and Fire: The Civil War Letters of Major Charles J. Mills, 1862-1865 edited by J. Gregory Acken

Acken, J. Gregory (editor) & Mills, Charles J. Through Blood and Fire: The Civil War Letters of Major Charles J. Mills, 1862-1865. The Kent State University Press. (2023). 312 pp., maps, illustrations. ISBN: 978-1-60635-454-4 $55.00 (Hardcover).

Cover of the book Through Blood and Fire: The Civil War Letters of Major Charles J. Mills, 1862-186 edited by J. Gregory AckenIn Through Blood and Fire: The Civil War Letters of Major Charles J. Mills, 1862-1865, Editor J. Gregory Acken refreshes and enhances the descriptive and insightful letters of Union staff officer Charles J. Mills during the last year of the war with a new second edition.  Acken builds upon the first edition by Gregory Coco, which had a small print run in 1982 and is relatively hard to find today.  Charley Mills, a Harvard-educated Boston Brahmin from an old and distinguished family, believed strongly in preserving the Union. So strongly did he believe, in fact, crippling wounds did not keep him out of the fight.  Through it all, Mills wrote home to his mother (and occasionally other family) diligently, describing from his staff officer vantage point the actions of the Union Army throughout the Overland and Petersburg campaigns of 1864-65.  Greatly increased notes describe the soldiers and civilians with whom Mills interacts, new maps add to readers understanding, and additional letters provide even more of Mills’ thoughts. Taken as a whole, Through Blood and Fire is a worthy successor to Greg Coco’s rare original and should be on the shelves of anyone interested in the Petersburg Campaign.

Editor J. Gregory Acken, a fine independent historian, has previous experience editing primary source materials for publication. His first book Inside the Army of the Potomac: The Civil War Experience of Captain Francis Adams Donaldson, looked at an officer of the 118th Pennsylvania who provided first-person details of combat with the Army of the Potomac and who constantly feuded with Colonel (and later Brevet Major General) James Gwyn.  Donaldson was involved in many of the major battles of the Army of the Potomac through late 1863, eventually resigning due to his disagreements with Gwyn.  Brian Pohanka called it “…one of the finest solder accounts of the Army of the Potomac that I have ever read.” Acken recently released a Kent State published set of letters and the diary of Union horse soldier William B. Rawle of the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry entitled Blue-Blooded Cavalryman: Captain William Brooke Rawle in the Army of the Potomac, May 1863–August 1865. In addition to editing first person accounts, Mr. Acken “served for twelve years on the board of governors of the Civil War Library and Museum of Philadelphia” and has written magazine articles as well as contributed book reviews to scholarly journals.

The Kent State University Press and Greg Acken are to be commended for republishing this book, originally edited by Gregory A. Coco in 1982 in a limited print run. Coco purchased relics of Charles J. Mills in 1977. They included swords, a bloodstained cloth, a flag, and other items, but most importantly a “large, leatherbound case” of almost 200 letters.  Coco used 118 of those letters to form the backbone of the first edition. Mills suffered a crippling wound at Antietam in his first combat experience, eventually came back to the Army of the Potomac as a staff officer in the Ninth Corps and Second Corps and provided keen insights into many famous Generals and other staffers.  This book was unfortunately published in a private edition of just 300 and was an excellent candidate for much wider circulation.  Here Editor Greg Acken has stepped into the breach with a second edition, citing several improvements on and additions to the original. Acken has added some letters which were housed in Harvard’s Houghton Library as well as several others which were not included in Coco’s original find.  Unfortunately, the 200 original letters could not be found, so Acken was working with Coco’s transcriptions of the 118 which are found in the first edition.    Acken’s additions are truly felt in two areas: the annotations and the maps.  He greatly added upon and improved Coco’s original notes, identifying “nearly all of the soldiers and many of the civilians mentioned by Mills.”  In addition, his footnotes often provide needed context for the events and people Mills was writing about in letters home.  Dates have often been added in brackets to help readers better follow the letters, and Acken also explores some themes which come through in Mills’ writing.  Original maps Mills hand drew are included as updated maps, and other new maps were added to this edition of the book.   Greg Coco’s widow Cindy Small was supportive and enthusiastic about creating the second edition.

Charles J. Mills, born to a prominent and extremely wealthy family in Boston in 1841, was a son of privilege.  He was given the best education possible and graduated from Harvard in 1860.  Mills’ father, a Boston Brahmin, wasted no time in utilizing his connections to try to secure Charley an officer’s commission in a Massachusetts regiment.  But interestingly, it took quite some to obtain the prize sought after.  Eventually, in August 1862, after the Second Massachusetts had suffered severe officer casualties at Cedar Mountain, Mills was able to achieve his goal.  He was appointed a 2nd Lieutenant and joined the regiment in time for the 2nd Manassas and Maryland Campaigns of 1862, being appointed Adjutant prior to the Battle of Antietam.  It was there, on September 17, 1862, Mills received crippling wounds in both legs just below his hips as he sat along the Hagerstown Turnpike north of Sharpsburg, Maryland, knocking him out of the war and into bed for months.

These wounds would have exempted Charley Mills from any further service in the Civil War, but Mills was no ordinary man.  The nature of the wounds necessitated Charley join up as a staff officer to be able to ride a horse.  In the Autumn of 1863, he was appointed as adjutant of the 56th Massachusetts, a new regiment forming which would eventually join Ambrose Burnside’s Ninth Corps for Grant’s Overland Campaign of 1864.  By the time the Overland Campaign kicked off with the Battle of the Wilderness, Mills was on the staff of the 1st Division, 9th Corps, led by BG Thomas J. Stevenson.  Legendary Siege of Petersburg historian Richard J. Sommers provided the Foreword to the 1982 1st edition, calling Mills “intelligent…literate…refined” and pointing out the advantages in observation with which staff officers are blessed. Mills was present through the rest of the Overland Campaign and most of the Siege of Petersburg, serving at first as a divisional staff officer before being promoted to the Corps level, first with the Ninth Corps and subsequently with the Second Corps.  The Boston Brahmin was well-situated to view the events of 1864-65 through the eyes of the Union high command, and his intelligent and descriptive letters home give readers a glimpse as well.  He ultimately served on the staffs of Stevenson, Crittenden, Ledlie, White, Parke, Hancock, and Humphreys.

As Editor Acken writes, Charley Mills was an opinionated man, sometimes quick to pass judgment but almost always owning up to initial mistaken impressions.  Mills sometimes looked down upon others given his high social standing. He was not racially enlightened, and as Acken notes, “[h]is racially charged comments denigrating African American soldiers, though not uncommon for that era, are difficult to read.” Mills instead was focused on saving the Union.  Mills often wrote home twice a week throughout the Overland and Petersburg campaigns.  He provides first person accounts of the Ninth Corps at 2nd Petersburg on June 17, 1864, the Crater, Globe Tavern on August 19, 1864, Pegram’s Farm in late September to early October 1864, Boydton Plank Road on October 27, 1864, where he had a hand in capturing the remains of an entire Confederate unit, and others. His evaluations of Union Generals and the staffers surrounding them are invaluable to readers and researchers alike, though he saw the world through Brahmin-tinted glasses. He was well-liked by the Boston elite as well as most everyone else who knew him.  Charley had no trouble making and keeping friends despite serving on a variety of staffs in 1864-65.

Through Blood and Fire: The Civil War Letters of Major Charles J. Mills, 1862-1865 is an excellent second edition with many tangible improvements over the original.  It was an enjoyable read and is a fine addition to the first-person accounts from members of the Army of the Potomac.  Charles J. Mills’ intelligence, diligence in writing home to his mother, and his great descriptive writing combine to make this a stellar account of the last year of the war in the East.  Mills was intimately involved with the inner workings of headquarters staffs at the Corps level for a good portion of the Siege of Petersburg, making this book invaluable to students of the campaign.  Editor Greg Acken was somewhat handicapped by the fact he did not have the original letters.  They have been misplaced in the time since Greg Coco passed away in 2009.  In one case, he could not determine if Greg Coco or Charley himself accidentally wrote Hancock when he meant Humphreys after Mills had transferred to the Second Corps staff and after Hancock had left the front.  Despite this unfortunate fact, Acken strove to make the material more useful and more easily understood for modern readers with extensive annotations, extra letters, improved maps, and a large bibliography.  Mills’ fellow Boston Brahmin’s were prodigious writers after the war, and Acken mined this vein with vigor.  Mills casually name drops numerous friends from Harvard and Boston, including Meade’s staff officer Theodore Lyman, Henry Livermore Abbott, and Robert Gould Shaw of “Glory” fame among many others. While important to researchers and satisfying all scholarly requirements, this book can be picked up and read easily by anyone with an interest in the Civil War.  It is a fantastic account from a rare perspective and should be widely available to students and researchers.  For that, Greg Acken is to be commended.

Through Blood and Fire: The Civil War Letters of Major Charles J. Mills, 1862-1865 is a must have reference work for anyone interested in the Civil War, but especially students of the Siege of Petersburg.  Charley Mills served for a time under James Ledlie, the most incompetent division commander in the Army of the Potomac from 1864-65, and possibly the entire war.  He knew intimately of Henry Pleasants’ mine well in advance of its explosion on July 30, 1864.  He observed the failed Ninth Corps assaults at the Crater and commented unfavorably about the USCT Division’s behavior.  He was involved in lesser-known battles at Globe Tavern, Pegram’s Farm, and Boydton Plank Road.  And through it all, he provided his observations about the men making key decisions which greatly impacted the outcome of the campaign.  Over half of this book contains letters written from and about the Siege of Petersburg.

This second edition of Through Blood and Fire improves upon the original version by increasing reader understanding of the people, places, and events in Charles J. Mills’ letters home.  The youthful Harvard graduate turned staff officer provides insightful commentary about the inner workings of Civil War era divisions and corps level staff.  He witnessed and helped make history at the Battle of Antietam as well as in the Overland and Petersburg Campaigns of 1864-65.  Mills’ determination to help his cause is nearly unequaled in the annals of Civil War history.  By all rights his Antietam wound should have knocked him out of the wat permanently.  For Mills, however, the bloodiest single day of battle in U.S. history was but a precursor of even bloodier campaigns to come.  Anyone interested in Civil War first person accounts, the Army of the Potomac, the Overland Campaign, and the Siege of Petersburg will want to own this book.  At $55 for a new hardcover, the price is steep for average students of the Civil War. In this case, however, the book is well worth it.  The only original available at the time of this review was selling for nearly as much and in just “Good” condition.  The letters of the “intelligent…literate…refined” Charles J. Mills provide a brilliant first-person account of Grant’s campaigns against Lee from a man who was well-situated and more than literate enough to record what was happening around him at Division and Corps headquarters. Lucky for us he did, and lucky too his letters have been ably edited by Greg Coco and Greg Acken.

Reviewer’s Note: An advanced digital copy of the manuscript was sent by the Editor for the purposes of this review.

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