The Prairie Boys Go to War: The Fifth Illinois Cavalry, 1861-1865

By Robertson, Brian K. | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Autumn 2013 | Go to article overview

The Prairie Boys Go to War: The Fifth Illinois Cavalry, 1861-1865


Robertson, Brian K., The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


The Prairie Boys Go to War: The Fifth Illinois Cavalry, 1861-1865. By Rhonda M. Kohl. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2013. Pp. x, 230. Preface, illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography, in- dex. $39.50.)

Many regimental histories, particularly older ones, provide a myopic view of a particular unit. These "drum and bugle" histories often go to great lengths to glorify their respective regiments. In doing so, however, they often miss the mark and fail to give not only an accurate picture of the regiment's military prowess but also a true accounting of the individu- als who made up the unit. Such is not the case with The Prairie Boys Go to War. Rhonda Kohl skillfully blends military, social, economic, political, and even religious history into a dissection of the Fifth Illinois Cavalry. As a result, readers are given an engaging look into the inner workings of a Union cavalry regiment and allowed to see firsthand how it operated during the Civil War. We get the guts, the glory, and the warts. Kohl's no- holds barred narrative is compelling and highly readable.

The Fifth Illinois Cavalry was organized in southern Illinois, an area referred to locally as Egypt. The region had a distinct culture and belief system that set it apart from the rest of state. In some ways, it had more in common (economically, socially, and politically) with the South than it had with the other sections of Illinois. This disparity was echoed in the regiment when Egyptians mixed with citizen soldiers from central and northern Illinois. While the Fifth Illinois Cavalry's enlisted men were overwhelmingly Democrats from the southern part of the state, Repub- licans and those from the northern part of the state were overrepresented in the officer corps. This made for a combustible situation as the men marched off to war. As the national conflict progressed, poor leadership, disciplinary problems, and low morale also hounded the regiment. The situation was often compounded by fractious infighting within the officer corps as the men sabotaged each other as they jockeyed for rank.

While many of the men were at odds with each other, they also came to see enemies at home. Kohl adeptly shows how the rise and influence of the Copperhead movement directly affected soldiers in the field. The political intrigue sapped morale and led some of the soldiers to believe that the Union was threatened more by traitors at home than Confederates in the field. Nowhere was this divide between soldiers and civilians more apparent than in the reactions to the Emancipation Proclamation. An over- whelming majority of soldiers in the Fifth Illinois supported the policy to arm the freed slaves and enlist them in the army, but many on the home front resented Lincoln's plan and reacted with fear and hostility.

The book is not just a good social and cultural history of a Civil War regiment, it is a first-rate military history as well, providing an excellent accounting of the tactical and strategic situations in Arkansas and Missis- sippi. For example, Kohl's analysis of the ebb and flow of operations in eastern Arkansas during summer and fall of 1862 is masterful. She offers her readers intimate vignettes of operations in the area, yet maintains her contextual focus on the overall situation.

In addition to discussing operations in Arkansas, Kohl also provides compelling evidence of the effects of the campaign on the men. We leam firsthand how difficult it was to spend days on end in the saddle chasing an elusive prey only to have to return to the squalid living conditions in and around Helena. …

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