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The Baraboo Guards: A Novel of the American Civil War.

By John K. Driscoll. (Madison: Prairie Oak Press, 1995. Pp. 320. $16.95.)

The Iron Brigade was one of the hardest-fighting and most respected infantry formations in the Army of the Potomac, distinguishing itself in savage actions at Brawner Farm, South Mountain, Antietam, and Gettysburg. The brigade's members took almost a perverse pride in being Westerners in a predominantly Eastern army. In combat, these rugged sons of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana exhibited an unyielding tenacity that prompted some observers to question whether such men could be composed of ordinary flesh and blood. But their valor carried a terrible price. The Iron Brigade suffered a higher percentage of its troops killed and mortally wounded than any other brigade in the Union army. Its sad and heroic story is the stuff of which legends--and good novels--should be made.

The Baraboo Guards is John K. Driscoll's moving account of a fictional company in the Iron Brigade's oldest regiment, the 2d Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry. The story opens in May 1861, as a hundred men from Sauk County assemble at the town of Baraboo to depart for their regimental rendezvous at Madison. They soon board a train for Washington, D.C. and receive a harrowing baptism of fire at the First Battle of Bull Run. In the months that follow, the 2d Wisconsin is joined by the 6th and 7th Wisconsin and the 19th Indiana, although nearly another year would pass before the brigade would receive a chance to prove its mettle in battle. (The 24th Michigan was not assigned to the Iron Brigade until October 1862 after the slaughter at Antietam.)

A Civil War buff since 1961, Driscoll has written a fitting tribute to the Iron Brigade by focusing on the trials of a single company. Many outstanding war novels are essentially studies in male bonding, but Driscoll is to be commended for recognizing that the men of the Iron Brigade were already closely bonded before they ever put on uniforms. The Baraboo Guards repeatedly highlights the fierce local pride that explains why so many Civil War units sustained such fearful losses and kept coming back for more. Driscoll's descriptions of training, camp life, picket duty, and combat are vivid and completely believable. The book also features some shrewd character sketches that explore both the noble and ignoble sides of human nature.

Although Driscoll thoroughly researched the Iron Brigade's history, he occasionally lets his characters lapse into modern slang, which clashes with the period tone of his finely crafted prose. A few of the commands shouted by Driscoll's officers smack more of the eighteenth century than the drill manuals of the Civil War era. Like Michael Shaara in The Killer Angels, Driscoll also finds it necessary to invent a worldly wise, middle-aged Irish veteran to teach his green Wisconsin volunteers the fine points of soldiering. Driscoll's Michael Patrick Murphy (an ex-Marine, like his creator) is even more of a rogue than Shaara's Buster Kilrain, but he remains an unmistakably derivative device in what is otherwise an original and memorable historical novel.

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Author:Urwin, Gregory J.W.
Publication:Civil War History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1998
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