In the First Line of Battle: The 21th Illinois Cavalry in the Civil War

By Gerleman, David J. | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

In the First Line of Battle: The 21th Illinois Cavalry in the Civil War


Gerleman, David J., Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


In the First Line of Battle: The 12th Illinois Cavalry in the Civil War. By Samuel M. Blackwell, Jr. (DeKalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 2002. Pp. xi, 222. Illustration, maps, index. Hardcover, $35.00)

In the fifty-odd years after the Civil War ended more than eight hundred regimental histories were published, often by old soldiers or reunion committees seeking to record their regiment's exploits and to honor the memory of fallen comrades. One unit that did not successfully chronicle its official deeds was the 12th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry, one of seventeen regiments of mounted troops raised by the Prairie State during the war. What amusing tales or insights the Illinois troopers might have passed along to posterity have been permanently lost. But Samuel M. Blackwell's book In the First Line of Battle: The 12th Illinois Cavalry in the Civil War helps rescue the regiment from historical oblivion. In some ways this delayed regimental history is a greater boon to readers because Blackwell is able to impartially judge the regiment's performance, achievements, and faults without the sentimental and florid Victorian rhetorical flourishes that clog many of the participant-written histories.

The 12th Illinois Cavalry's both ordinary and extraordinary Civil War career certainly merits a history. In many ways its war experiences and transformation from greenhorn awkwardness to veteran skill represents in microcosm the growing pains of the entire Union cavalry. The regiment served in a host of different roles typically assigned to mounted soldiers: guarding supply lines, taking part in pitched battles, and performing the frustrating task of fighting guerrillas. The unit was noted not only for its hard-fighting abilities, but also for its varied and far-flung field of service, stretching from tidewater Virginia all the way to the plains of Texas. The 12th Illinois was also unique because it was one of only two Illinois cavalry regiments to see extended service with the Army of the Potomac in the war's eastern theater. Portions of the regiment sometimes even served simultaneously in two different locations within a single theater. Even at war's end the unit attained additional distinction due to its selection-much to the men's chagrin-as one of the volunteer regiments ordered to remain in service while most others were sent home. …

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