Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Disappointing Source

Research is a mixed bag. Sometimes, books turn out to yield unexpected jewels, and sometimes books turn out to be disappointing. It’s probably not fair to label a book as disappointing because its contents may be invaluable to a historian working on a different project. Also, historians shouldn't judge a book based on what they wished the author had covered. In spite of all that, though, I am disappointed by a source, namely Wiley Britton’s, The Union Indian Brigade In The Civil War (1922). Britton, a veteran of the 6th Kansas Cavalry, penned two other works: The Civil War on the Border in two volumes and his own Memoirs of the Rebellion on the Border: 1863. Authors regularly cite Britton’s books, although his influence seems to be declining somewhat as more modern books are published about the Border War.

Britton often observed the Union Indian brigade that consisted of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Indian Home Guard regiments, and his personal comments about these soldiers are sprinkled throughout the unit history. The frustrating part to me, though, is that his history could have been much more valuable. A top-notch unit history draws on letters, diaries, recollections, official documents, and other sources that relate directly to the soldiers in that unit. What is lacking in Britton’s history is the perspective of men who actually served in the brigade. To be fair, many of the veterans had died by the time Britton's book was published in 1922. If only Britton had worked earlier on securing letters, recollections, and other documentation from the Indians, African-Americans, and white soldiers that served in the brigade! That would have resulted in an amazing resource about one of the most unique brigades in the Union army. We are fortunate to have the resources that we do about the War, but sometimes you just can’t help but think about what could have been.

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