Monday, December 8, 2008

Duty, Honor and Country: Captain William P. Black

Duty, Honor and Country: The Civil War Experiences of Captain William P. Black, Thirty-Seventh Illinois Infantry. Edited by Michael E. Banasik. Unwritten Chapters of the Civil War West of the River, Volume VI. Illustrated, maps, appendix, footnotes, bibliography, index, 511 pp., 2006. Camp Pope Bookshop, PO Box 2232, Iowa City, IA 52244. $24.95 plus shipping.

Through the letters of William Black we learn about the combined experiences of the Black brothers of the 36th Illinois. Both brothers initially enlisted in the 11th Indiana but after three months of service were discharged and recruited Company K of the 37rth Illinois. William’s brother John Charles (but always referred to as Charles by William) eventually rose to the rank of colonel of the regiment and was brevetted a brigadier general after the war. William spent the war as captain of Company K, although numerous times he tried to secure promotion within the regiment and a few times asked his politically connected father to try to secure a promotion in another unit.

The letters cover all aspects of William’s service during the war. There does not seem to be any topic that William does not discuss in his letters. The 37th Illinois did not see much combat, its major battles were Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove, so battle descriptions make up only a minor portion of the letters. Most of the letters focus on regimental politics as William discusses how the infighting among the higher ranking officers. While his brother was colonel the lieutenant colonel was engaged in a behind the scenes battle to discredit Colonel Black. Colonel Black spent a significant amount of time at home recuperating from a severe wound suffered at Prairie Grove. Lieutenant Colonel Frisbie did his best to portray Colonel Black’s actions at Prairie Grove as less than honorable. Eventually this lead to a court martial against Frisbie and the story of this infighting dominates a good portion of William’s letters home. Colonel Black was the victor of this bickering and in 1893 was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Prairie Grove. William was also awarded a Medal of Honor in 1893 for his actions at Pea Ridge. William and Charles are one of five sets of brothers that have won the Medal of Honor.

William also writes about the role of company commander and all the reports he must fill out. When he first finds out he has a bunch of reports and vouchers to fill out he’s been in the service quite awhile and has a hard time making out the old reports for clothing. But by the end of his service he’s well caught up and while he finds the task tedious he seems to have a good handle on it. William also writes often about women, in fact late in the war he nearly became engaged through a misunderstanding and his attempts at explaining it to his brother and mother are quite humorous. William’s internal struggle on whether or not he should reenlist or be mustered out at the end of his initial three year enlistment is quite interesting. Although these are letters to his family back home it almost reads as a diary as William struggles with his decision. At one point he decides that he will not reenlist because he thinks the war will be over soon and he also wants to return home. Then he changes his mind and decides to reenlist.

Michael Banasik has done a masterful job in editing the letters. His footnotes fill in all the gaps in the letters and provide a good amount of background detail. There are many pages that the amount of footnotes is greater than the text of the letters. Banasik also did a wonderful job with the appendices as he provides a complete regimental roster, biographies of some of the leading generals, additional supplemental letters and official reports, and some organizational charts.

I would not recommend this book as a regimental history of the 37th Illinois as there will be too many gaps, at one point William serves on detached duty as an ordnance officer. I do think this is a good book for someone wanting a personal glimpse into the life of a captain in general, and specifically into the inner workings of the high command of the 37th Illinois.
This review also appears in the December issue of Civil War News.

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