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Book Review: Allegany to Appomattox: The Life and Letters of Private William Whitlock of the 188th New York Volunteers

Dunham, Valgene. Allegany to Appomattox: The Life and Letters of Private William Whitlock of the 188th New York Volunteers (Syracuse University Press, 2013). 264 pages, maps, illustrations, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-0-8156-1011-3 $29.95 (Cloth). Note: Also available in Kindle format.

Allegany to Appomattox: The Life and Letters of Private William Whitlock of the 188th New York Volunteers by Valgene DunhamMany soldiers answered the call to war in the heady days of 1861 and 1862, but what of the volunteers who joined late in the war, after the grim toll of the Overland Campaign?  Will Whitlock of the 188th New York was just such a man, and his letters home to his wife “Lide” capture his thoughts and feelings as the war was winding to an inexorable close.  Will’s descendant Valgene Dunham edits his letters and provides late war background on the Civil War in the Eastern Theater Allegany to Appomattox: The Life and Letters of Private William Whitlock of the 188th New York Volunteers.

Author Valgene Dunham is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the College of Science at Coastal Carolina University, and is currently retired after a career in plant biochemistry.  This is his first book outside of the sciences, but it is very personal given Will Whitlock is his great-great-grandfather.

Will Whitlock was a late war volunteer, joining the 188th New York in September 1864 as a private.  The new regiment was assigned to Gregory’s Second Brigade, First Division, Fifth Corps, Army of the Potomac.  Whitlock and his regiment were set to work digging trenches upon their arrival at City Point, Grant’s supply base on the James River, but soon enough they were moved on to participate in the fighting.  The 188th New York fought at The Battle of Boydton Plank Road, or First Hatcher’s Run, on October 27, 1864, participated in Warren’s Stony Creek or “Applejack” Raid in December 1864, and also saw action at Second Hatcher’s Run in February 1865.  Will was present for all of these movements and fights, but he was often sick in his short time in service, suffering from a nagging cold.

Will’s great great grandson Valgene Dunham edited his ancestor’s letters.  There were a total of forty letters in the collection, not enough to completely fill a book, so Professor Dunham had some choices to make.  He groups the letters by subject, giving readers a glimpse into Will’s writing and then focusing on a specific Civil War era topic.  Topics include the enlistment experience, life in the trenches, desertion, life on the home front, and of course, the battles Will Whitlock was involved in.

While this was mostly a solid approach, several things seemed out of place.  First, the author spends a great deal of time talking about the Crater battle in two chapters.  The Crater occurred back in July 1864, well before Will ever enlisted.  Had more time been spent on the Fifth Offensive, which occurred just prior to the arrival of the 188th New York, at the expense of the Crater it would have set the stage a little better.  Second, many of the letters are not reproduced until an appendix at the back of the book, and the letters throughout the main text are not reproduced in chronological order.  This takes away some of the emphasis on the letters as the main focus of the book.  Third, the author, in his enthusiasm as a first time history writer, seems to get carried away at times with some of the topics he writes about.  Discussing desertion and faith as it applied to Will Whitlock and the 188th New York is fine, but the author spends a great deal of time on these and other topics with little or no focus on the main theme of the book.  Experienced Civil War readers are going to purchase one or more books on those topics, while readers interested in the 188th New York and/or Will Whitlock and Elmira, New York will expect the focus to be on Will Whitlock and the 188th New York.  A better approach may have been to find and publish other letters written by men of the 188th during their time at the front to give the regiment as a whole more voice.  Lastly, the author produced a mixed format for notes.  Some notes were placed in parentheses in the text, something I’ve since learned is pretty common in the Sciences.  Others were standard footnotes.  Choosing one format, preferably the standard footnotes or endnotes common in Civil War books, would have better served target readers.

Minor quibbles aside, Will Whitlock’s letters are often lengthy and describe late-war life at the front in excellent detail.  Dunham does a very good job describing what his ancestor was writing about for those new to the study of the Civil War.  This book is a good one for those new to the study of the Siege of Petersburg in particular due to the often lengthy coverage of battles from the Third through Eighth Offensives.  In particular, Dunham describes the Fifth Cops portions of both battles of Hatcher’s Run and the Applejack Raid, topics which have received very little coverage in book form to date.  The maps were produced by Hal Jespersen (http://www.cwmaps.com), and he does his usual top-notch work here.  Dunham sprinkles in a representative group of illustrations, including a very well preserved image of Will Whitlock himself, which also graces the cover.  The author spends time in the appendices covering Whitlock family genealogy, a nice touch in a book like this, provides an order of battle for the Second Battle of Hatcher’s Run in February 1865, and produces all of the letters which didn’t make a full appearance in the main text.

Allegany to Appomattox: The Life and Letters of Private William Whitlock of the 188th New York Volunteers is a nice collection of letters from a late-war private who joined after the true toll of battle was known.  Readers new to the study of the war and new to personal reminiscences would do well to read this one first, as the author does a good job describing Civil War terms, people, and places.  Anyone interested in first person accounts of the Civil War will find this a solid addition to their bookshelves.  Genealogists would do well to mimic Professor Dunham’s work for their own Civil War era ancestors.  In the end, the author has produced a work befitting his great-great-grandfather while bringing his experience to life in the 21st century.

This book was provided gratis for the purposes of this review.
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