Civil War brought to life through the letters of two young soldiers


“Our Experience in the Irish Brigade: Fredericksburg to Petersburg, Letters From One of the Most Revered Federal Brigades in the American Civil War” by Andrew W. Vandall, self-published, available at local bookstores.

When it comes to his personal time, Andrew Vandall, who teaches global history and leadership at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, is more likely focused not on global history but on the history of the American Civil War. His recently published book, entitled “Our Experience in the Irish Brigade: Fredericksburg to Petersburg,” is an homage to his fascination with that war.

In the book, Mr. Vandall uses 19 letters written by two young Pennsylvania recruits, Aaron and Allen Landis, 20 and 18 years old, respectively, as the starting point to explicate the war from the point of view of a private on the ground in the renowned 116th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. The letters were written home during the two-year period they served from August 1862 until the summer of 1864.

The Landis brothers left their family farm in southeastern Pennsylvania, Chester County, southwest of Philadelphia, to join the 116th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. The 116th was recruited primarily from Irish Americans in the Philadelphia area during the summer of 1862. The regiment was assigned to the Irish Brigade, part of the Army of the Potomac. By December the brigade was part of the Battle of Fredericksburg, fought at the Battle of Chancellorsville, the Battle of Gettysburg, and other battles, including the Appomattox Campaign.

Using journals and memoirs of the Landis brothers and others in the brigade along with newspaper accounts, Mr. Vandall embellishes the tale with extensive background information gleaned from his years of study.

The Irish Brigade has been the focus of much research. There are several memoirs and histories about the Brigade by soldiers in leadership positions, some written from the haze of memory decades after the war. Mr. Vandall relies on their accounts to help flesh out the back-story but is unforgivingly frank when he knows their accounts to be inaccurate.

This is a story not just of war but of two years in the lives of two young mid-19th century Americans. You would hardly know they were in the midst of one of the bloodiest wars up to that time from some of the letters that were more concerned with the practicalities of army life and concerns of the family back home.

Mr. Vandall grew up outside of Pittsburgh. His interest in the Civil War in general and in the lives of the soldiers in particular began at an early age. During summers as a child he often traveled with his father to Civil War battle sites. His father was a war reenactor, a tradition he has continued. He has spent many a weekend as a Civil War reenactor, often as a private in the Union Army, usually as a member of a Pennsylvania regiment.

The book is an informative and pleasant read with clear explanations and descriptions that help delineate the war and its implications. It suffers in a few places from the lack of attentive copy-editing, it could use an index, and the bibliography is not complete. But these are minor concerns. There is no shortage of interesting detail born from the letters seen through the eyes of a reenactor-historian and told by a skilled teacher.