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Review: The Soul of a Soldier: The True Story of a Mounted Pioneer in the Civil War

Miller, Myron M. The Soul of a Soldier: The True Story of a Mounted Pioneer in the Civil War. Xlibris Corporation (2011). 217 pages, illustrations, appendices, notes, bibliography. ISBN: 978-1-4568-8146-7 $29.99 (Cloth).

What happens to a soldier’s soul in battle?  How do soldiers live in cramped and dangerous trench conditions during the Siege of Petersburg?  What does a soldier eat?  Where do they sleep?  Myron M. Miller’s The Soul of a Soldier: The True Story of a Mounted Pioneer in the Civil War sets out to answer these questions and more in a book containing the letters of the authors grandfather, a veteran of the 211th Pennsylvania and a special 25 man Ninth Corps unit called the Mounted Pioneer Corps.

Author Myron M. Miller has lived a full, varied, and apparently very successful life.  The Northwestern alumnus earned a Masters degree at Cornell, and went on to military, business, and teaching and philanthropy, among other things.  Mr. Miller continues to teach and has lived in North Carolina since 1998.  His interest in genealogy and history combined with his grandfather’s letters and his great-uncle’s genealogical sketch of the Miller and Ellis families provided sufficient motivation to combine the two into The Soul of a Soldier.  For more on the author, see his web site at http://www.myronmmiller.com/.

Samuel K. Miller was born on May 14, 1822 in McSherrytown, Pennsylvania, son of John Miller and Elizabeth Shriver and one of nine children.  The family soon moved to Petersburg, Ohio, where Miller grew up and attended school.  Later he worked as a drover, driving cattle from Ohio to market in Pennsylvania.  He also began learning how to make cabinets, a business he made a living at for many years.  Samuel, a versatile man, also worked in the lead mines at Galena, Illinois and spent some time in Minnesota.  Eventually he moved to Adamsville, Pennsylvania to live with his sister Elizabeth.  There he met and married Silence Ford Ellis from an abolitionist Free Will Baptist family.  Samuel and Elizabeth had two children, Myron M. Miller and Milo H. Miller, and the family was living in Crawford County, Pennsylvania at the outbreak of war.

Samuel’s wife saw four brothers serve in the Union army during the Civil War, and one, Philander Coburn Ellis, died in the famous charge of the 1st Minnesota on July 2, 1863 at Gettysburg.  No one in Samuel’s family had served to this point, and his decision to join the Union army in 1864 despite being 42 years old with two young sons and a wife was based partly on his belief that a Miller should be in the fight.  Miller joined Company A of the 211th Pennsylvania on September 3, 1864, and the unit was soon sent to the Siege of Petersburg.  The 211th Pennsylvania was mainly stationed on the Bermuda Hundred front during the time Samuel served.  Probably his most exciting service was in Warren’s raid south down the Weldon Railroad in the direction of Hicksford, Virginia in early December 1864.  In December 1864, his experience with bridge building and his skill with his hands allowed Samuel the fortune of being assigned to a special mounted and unarmed 25 man Mounted Pioneer Corps unit assigned permanently to Ninth Corps headquarters.  Despite being sent to a place of less danger, did Samuel survive the war to be reunited with his wife and children?  Read the book to find out.

Myron Miller’s loving look at his great-grandfather’s service is one part genealogy and one part history.  He paired Samuel K. Miller’s 46 surviving letters from ninth months’ service in the Union army with great-uncle Milo H. Miller’s genealogy of the Miller and Ellis families.  Thanks to Milo, Myron was able to provide a much more in depth and detailed account of his great-grandfather’s life, and this extra information makes a good book even better.  Miller breaks down the letters into chapters by topic, an idea which may sound odd at first but really does work when the story is read.  For those chronologically inclined souls, an appendix provides the full text of all letters from first to last.  Another appendix clarifies who is who among the Millers and Ellises, names which are mentioned frequently by Samuel in his letters.  Topics include the home front, Samuel’s motivation for joining up, Samuel’s experience in battles and skirmishes, his feelings upon witnessing hangings and surgeries, living conditions at the front, the election of 1864, his feelings on copperheads and others who hindered the Northern war effort, and his growth as a Christian.

An interesting subplot to the book is the strongly abolitionist leanings of Silence Ellis and her family, as well and Samuel’s presumably similar feelings on the subject.  Some in their area were unkind to Silence and her children while Samuel was away, and his bitter feelings toward these people apparently never ceased.  Silence’s brothers gave a lot and in one case his all for the Union and the freedom of the slaves.  It was enlightening to see how opposition to the war effort was viewed by a man strongly dedicated to his cause.

The author views his great-grandfather’s struggles with his commitment to living a Christian life as paramount to this story.  Samuel K. Miller was apparently not a dedicated Christian prior to his service in the Civil War.  His letters show his growing faith, a faith which ultimately strengthened as time went on despite the hurt inflicted on his soul due to his wartime experiences.

The Mounted Pioneer Corps is an angle of the story which is both intriguing and frustrating.  It is intriguing because the unit seems to be somewhat unique in that it was unarmed, mounted, and attached directly to Ninth Corps headquarters.  It is at the same time frustrating due to the lack of printed information on such units.  For instance,

  1. How unique was Samuel’s 25 man unit?  It was provided only with tools, no weapons, and was kept away from the fighting completely.
  2. Did the other corps of the Army of the Potomac (and James?) have similar 25 man units during the Siege of Petersburg?  In other words, was there an army wide order creating these units or was General Parke doing this on his own initiative?
  3. How did this pioneer unit differ from other pioneer units which were created for brigades, divisions, etc.?

For all of the good qualities of this well done print on demand (POD) book published using Xlibris, there are some shortcomings.  First, as with all POD books, there were some spelling and grammatical errors.  These were thankfully actually very rare for a book of this kind.  Second, author Myron M. Miller uses a bit of an unconventional, at least for typical Civil War literature, way to indicate notes, displaying them directly behind a given sentence using parentheses and eschewing endnotes and footnotes altogether.  The bibliography is a bit thin, with Miller relying solely on Noah Andre Trudeau’s The Last Citadel: Petersburg, Virginia June 1864-April 1865 for all things pertaining to the Siege of Petersburg.  Considering all of Samuel’s service occurred during this campaign, it would have been nice to see the author use many more sources on the subject.  This led to less background on the various battles and skirmishes Samuel participated in, making it difficult for the reader to determine exactly what was happening in the overall scheme of things at the time Samuel was in a fight or manning the trenches on picket duty.  To his credit, Miller did use Samuel P. Bates’ famous set on Pennsylvania regiments to glean more information on the 211th, Samuel K. Miller’s unit.  This lack of bibliography combined with the author’s apparent newcomer status to study of the Civil War led to a less well rounded book than would have been possible with more study and consultation of sources.

The Soul of a Soldier, Myron M. Miller’s loving look at his great-grandfather’s service in the Union army, is a very well done and interesting book for a POD effort.  Samuel K. Miller’s 46 wartime letters home combined with a detailed bibliographical sketch of the soldiers non-Civil War life provide a full account of one man’s, and two families’ sacrifices in a bitter war which tore many families apart.  The varied life Samuel led as well as the somewhat unique circumstances of his assignment to the Mounted Pioneer Corps make this more than just an average set of letters.  Those interested in looking at the Civil War of individuals and the Siege of Petersburg will want to buy the book.  Genealogists looking for an extremely well done self-published effort will want this volume as a model for their own future efforts.  Readers interested in the effect of war on one’s religious views have an excellent case study here.  Others may have difficulty choosing this particular book of letters over another due to the very specific subject matter.  With that said, it is recommended for readers of this site.

I would like to thank author Myron M. Miller for bringing my attention to his book.

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

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • ACivilWarFamily July 11, 2011, 1:12 pm

    Another book along these lines
    A Civil War Family (The Battling Blacks of Butler County, Pennsylvania During and After the American Civil War)

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