Gregory A. Coco’s The Civl War Infantryman, published by Thomas Publications, Gettysburg, PA in 1996, is an interesting and informative work about the common foot soldier. In content and presentation it compares very favorably with Bell I. Wiley’s The Life of Johnny Reb and James I. Robertson’s Soldiers Blue and Gray.
The 160-page book is divided into three topical sections: I – The Military Organization; II – Food and Equipment; and III – Campaigning and Fighting. I think even well-read students of the war will find something new in Coco’s thorough, but not tedious, treatment of the Civil War combat soldier. For one thing, as a decorated combat veteran, Coco writes with the empathy of one who’s been there, not with the detachment of the pencil-necked academic. The author is also one of the emerging school of historians who challenge some of the long-held misconceptions about how the average Confederate soldier was equipped. He writes, for example, “In many circles there is a strong belief that only Federal infantrymen carried the knapsack. This is a blatantly false notion because too much easily obtainable evidence contradicts that idea.” As living historians we can benefit, not only from Coco’s conclusions on a single theme—such as the use of knapsacks—but also from his dedication to relying on verifiable source materials.
I wish I had read The Civil War Infantryman before I wrote “Sew What” (Nov. ’99 and Jan. ’00 “Stafford Guardian”). Coco quotes Corporal James Hosmer of the 52nd Massachusetts on page 38 of his book, and as is often true, 19th century man was able to say everything I wanted to say, and with far fewer words. Hosmer wrote the following about the Confederates he encountered, “…Here they are, the real truculent and unmitigated reb, in butternut of every shade, from the dingy green which clothes the unripe nut, to the tawny brown and faded tan which it wears at other stages – butternut mixed with a dull, characterless gray. There was no attempt at uniform, yet something common in the dress of the whole company – a faded look, as if the fabric, whatever it’s original hue, had felt the sun until all life and brightness had wilted in the web and had been killed out of the dye…” The book is replete with many humorous, heroic, pathetic, chilling and plain incredible accounts of life in the field and in battle. There is, for example, a memorable description of the wounding of a rebel called “Skipper” by Robert Stiles on page 138.
The text is complimented by excellent illustrations, period photographs, photographs of arms and equipment from various collections, sketches and reprints from Battles and Leaders, among others.
I have a minor complaint with the author’s editorial technique when he presents first-hand evidence from letters and diaries. He almost always employs the pedantic [sic] after a misspelling or adds words in parentheses to the excerpts. In most cases the original words would be just as clear without the scholarly nuggets.
I heartily recommend Mr. Coco’s The Civil War Infantryman to anyone who is interested in this subject. You could finish it in a weekend, or, at under fifteen dollars for the hardback, you can add it to your reference shelf without too big a drain on the purse. I refuse to follow my own advice (see, I know how to be a Corporal) and borrowed the review copy from the library. However you decide to read this book, I don’t think you will be disappointed.