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Book Review: Burnside’s Boys: The Union’s Ninth Corps and the Civil War in the East by Darin Wipperman

Cover image of Burnside's Boys: The Union's Ninth Corps and the Civil War in the East by Darin WippermanWipperman, Darin. Burnside’s Boys: The Union’s Ninth Corps and the Civil War in the East. Stackpole Books. (April 1, 2023). 528 pp., maps, illustrations. ISBN: 978-0811772648 Price: $34.95 (Hardcover).

Burnside’s Ninth Corps traveled more and more often than perhaps any other Corps in either army during the entire Civil War.  In Burnside’s Boys: The Union’s Ninth Corps and the Civil War in the East, Darin Wipperman provides a popular history of Burnside’s Ninth Corps backed by a scholarly level of sources. A lack of maps and sometimes lengthy sentence structure prevent the book from being better than otherwise, but readers will enjoy this look at the Ninth Corps across multiple theaters from 1862-1865.

Author Darin Wipperman is a native of Iowa with a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science. He worked for the U.S. Government for 17 years and served as an editor and reporter for weekly newspapers in northern New Hampshire. He is also the author of First for the Union: Life and Death in a Civil War Army Corps from Antietam to Gettysburg.

Stackpole has been publishing Civil War books for many years now and has been in existence for 90+ years.  Run by the Detweiler family for many years, it was acquired by Rowman & Littlefield in 2014. The book’s page at Stackpole leads with a curious statement: “Unique among Union army corps, the Ninth fought in both the Eastern and Western theaters of the Civil War.” Veteran students of the Civil War know the 11th and 12th Corps of the Army of the Potomac moved to the Western Theater after Gettysburg and fought at Chattanooga, in the Atlanta Campaign and beyond.

The Ninth Corps’ crossed cannon and anchor badge proudly symbolized its varied service and lengthy travels across both major theaters of the Civil War.  The Corps found its origins from units involved in Ambrose Burnside’s early 1862 invasion of the North Carolina coast as well as Thomas Sherman’s men who saw action at Secessionville near Charleston, South Carolina.  From there, they fought in many of the famous battles in the East with the notable exceptions of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg in 1863. First attached to Pope’s Army of Virginia at Second Manassas and again seeing action at South Mountain, the Ninth Corps saw one of its most iconic and worst days of the war at Antietam, losing 25% of its strength in bloody attacks at what became Burnside’s Bridge and further advances in the direction of Sharpsburg.  Portions of the Ninth Corps were sent forward against the southern end of the famous stone wall at the base of Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg, all of which met with bloody failure.

The Ninth Corps was transferred to Newport News, Virginia in January 1863.  Two divisions were sent to Kentucky while a third stayed behind and participated in the Siege of Suffolk.  This division would not again serve with the Ninth Corps with the exception of one regiment. The Kentucky stay was brief and most of the two divisions were sent on to the Siege of Vicksburg in June 1863. After the siege was won the Ninth Corps moved east to Jackson, helping to capture the Mississippi capital.  Their next and last assignment of 1863 was to secure East Tennessee for the Union.  This they did, withstanding a siege of Knoxville by Longstreet’s veteran First Corps, ANV in late Fall.  After wintering in East Tennessee the remnants of the Corps were sent to Annapolis to refit and reorganize for the 1864 campaigns. By the time this reorganization finished the Ninth Corps was a vastly changed organization. Men from the Knoxville Campaign, those who stayed in Kentucky during most of 1863, and entirely new recruits and regiments all came together to form this new version of the Ninth Corps.  Every single brigade of white troops was a mix of Ninth Corps veterans and regiments new to the unit.  In addition, a Fourth Division composed entirely of USCT regiments under Edward Ferrero were added to the Ninth Corps.

As the 1864 Overland Campaign kicked off the Ninth Corps was part of an awkward command arrangement.  Corps commander Ambrose Burnside reported directly to Ulysses S. Grant because he ranked Army of the Potomac commander George G. Meade.  This arrangement proved so unwieldy that Grant quickly abandoned the idea after three weeks of combat, getting Burnside to waive his rank and report directly to Meade. Through the month of May 1864, the Ninth Corps was heavily engaged at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, the North Anna River, Totopotomoy Creek, and Cold Harbor, before moving on to the Petersburg Campaign.

The Ninth Corps was present throughout the Siege of Petersburg.  They participated in three attacks on June 17, 1864 over much the same ground east of Petersburg, each with only one division. The Ninth Corps had center stage for the disastrous Battle of the Crater, and Burnside ultimately lost command of his longtime corps as a result. Soldiering on under longtime Burnside staffer John Parke, the Ninth Corps came to the rescue of Fifth Corps at Globe Tavern on August 19, 1864, suffered another disaster at Pegram’s Farm on September 30, 1864, and suffered relatively few casualties serving as a distraction during the Sixth Offensive in late October 1864. The Ninth Corps had two final major acts at Petersburg in 1865.  On March 25, after losing Fort Stedman and portions of their works, the Ninth Corps mounted a massive counterattack, took back their positions, and captured several thousand Confederates in a major victory.  In what seems to be one of the least known parts of the Third Battle of Petersburg on April 2, 1865, the Ninth Corps divisions of Potter and Hartranft attacked Fort Mahone, gaining a lodgment in the Confederate works and keeping thousands of Confederates busy who were desperately needed elsewhere. The Ninth Corps played a backup role in the Appomattox Campaign.

By my count, this is one of only a handful of modern studies on entire Corps of Civil War armies.  I recall a Second Corps study not too long ago, and Savas Beatie published a two-part history of the much maligned Eleventh Corps by James Pula. Wipperman himself penned a study of the Union First Corps entitled First for the Union: Life and Death in a Civil War Army Corps from Antietam to Gettysburg.

Burnside’s Boys utilizes a “you are there” approach to the Ninth Corps’ experiences during the war.  Although leadership decisions are sometimes discussed and dissected, especially at Antietam and the Crater, the author mainly follows the common fighting men of the Corps.  Utilizing dozens of first-person accounts, many from archival sources, the author was able to provide a wide variety of experiences at every fight and many places in between. Unit histories written by men who fought in regiments were widely used, as well as letters, diaries, and reports to Adjutant Generals of the various states from which Ninth Corps regiments hailed.

This may be a personal preference, but I found the writing style to be somewhat disjointed on occasion.  A better editor might have helped smooth out some fairly unwieldy sentences in places. I’m guilty of too-lengthy sentences myself, and I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t mention this.  In addition, I found several words misused in a few places, preemptory order for peremptory order (39), internment for interment (199), ordinance for ordnance (4, 237, 242).  Though there were a more than acceptable number of first-person accounts, the letters of Charles J. Mills are absent.  Mills was a staffer in the First Division and later at Ninth Corps HQ during the Overland Campaign and the first half of the Siege of Petersburg.  To be fair to the author, there were only 300 copies of the first edition of a book of Mills’ letters, and Greg Acken’s recent updated version was not yet available.

I don’t want to spoil Darin Wipperman’s conclusions about the various battles in which the Ninth Corps fought.  I thought the author did a fair job of evaluation for the most part and did not fall into the trap of making excuses for his topic of study. In one instance, at the Crater, one of the most important battles in Ninth Corps’ history, I did find myself disagreeing quite often with Mr. Wipperman.  I feel he isn’t nearly harsh enough with regards to division commander James Ledlie.  Ledlie was one of the most incompetent division commanders to ever serve with the Army of the Potomac.  He was in over his head, he had provided evidence of his incompetence several times during the Overland Campaign and at Second Petersburg on June 17, 1864, and his actions were inexcusable on July 30, 1864.  Burnside is given too much of a pass for picking his leading division in the attack by drawing straws.  Under no circumstances should Ledlie have been leading a critical charge where time was of the essence. The author also bizarrely (to me, at least) blames Gouverneur Warren for much of the failure because he did not support the attack well enough.  Ord’s Eighteenth Corps was detailed as the reserve force in the attack, but Eighteenth Corps commander Edward O. C. Ord receives very little comment. Warren is called “cowardly” later in the book as the Ninth Corps came to the rescue of the Fifth Corps at Globe Tavern.  Gouverneur Warren was a lot of things, hesitant, perfectionist, obstinate, but cowardly is not a remotely applicable word to use in his case. The author also claims Meade should have resigned for his role in the Crater disaster.  I do not recall ever reading this take on the affair.

The maps, done by Hal Jespersen, are excellent, as is always the case with his work.  The issue is, there are not nearly enough of them.  Wipperman often goes into good detail on the fighting in each battle, but without maps to pair with the text many readers will have trouble visualizing the action.  A good example occurs at Second Manassas, the first large scale battle in which the Ninth Corps participated.  The text was excellent, but it had been years since I last looked at a map of Second Manassas.  I knew Jackson’s wing was positioned behind a railroad line and that the Ninth Corps was involved in disjointed attacks during the first day of fighting, but I did not know where the various units of Ninth Corps attacked specifically. A map of the battle would have gone a long way to helping my understanding of the situation.  The maps were often positioned multiple pages after a particular battle’s details began to appear in the text.  I found myself looking ahead trying to see if a map was upcoming or not for each new battle. The biggest misses were Second Manassas, Second Petersburg, Globe Tavern, and Pegram’s Farm.  The Ninth Corps played big roles at these fights and one map each would have added tremendously to the book.

I’ve spent a lot of time (maybe too long) on some perceived negatives, but I want to make sure I end on multiple positive notes.  This was a good book and followed the Ninth Corps’ career throughout the Civil War.  It excels in describing the quiet times in between battles and what the Ninth Corps was doing.  A good example is the movement of Ninth Corps from North Carolina to Virginia in 1862 prior to Second Manassas.  These affairs often do not get mentioned in battle and campaign histories, so the book fills many important gaps in the story.  There was one appendix in the book. Important and otherwise memorable soldiers of the Ninth Corps receive paragraph length discussions of their postwar activities. Ambrose Burnside, by far the most important man in Ninth Corps history, is present, as well as division commanders including Robert Potter, Orlando Willcox, Edward Ferrero, and Samuel Sturgis.  The bibliography, as I mentioned earlier, is chock full of good and sometimes rarely used sources from men who fought in the Ninth Corps.  Daniel Larned, Burnside’s personal secretary for much of the war, is utilized to good effect in multiple places.

Darin Wipperman’s Burnside’s Boys: The Union’s Ninth Corps and the Civil War in the East, the second of his books to focus on a specific Union Corps in the war, has plenty of good features.  An exciting narrative bolstered by many first-person accounts help modern day readers understand what it was like to be a soldier in Burnside’s wide-traveled Ninth Corps.  A shortage of maps hurts a bit, but the maps which do exist are fantastic.  Wipperman has a unique perspective on the Ninth Corps’ role in some fights, and readers will be interested to see how he differs from conventional takes on specific battles. Anyone with an interest in the Ninth Corps or Ambrose Burnside will want to own this book.  Those who enjoy higher level unit histories than the regiment or battery level will also find it enjoyable.  Ultimately, despite some minor issues, I recommend this book to interested readers of Civil War history.

Editor’s Note: A copy of this book was provided gratis for the purposes of this review.

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