Book Review: The Untried Life: The 29th Ohio Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War. By James T. Fritsch. (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2012. 516 pp.)

In The Untried Life: The 29th Ohio Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War, James T. Fritsch provides an in-depth and extensive chronological regimental history of the men involved in the creation and sustenance of the 29th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.  Fritsch’s goal is to provide an accurate and comprehensive history, which he argues is critical to understanding just how important and unique a role these men played in the war.  The only previous history of the regiment was written in the 1880s by a man named J. Hampton SeCheverell, who spent a mere six months with the regiment before being mustered out of service.  That fact alone was not the only early regimental recording’s weakness; according to Fritsch, the history was a mere 130 pages and had a very triumphalist tone.

Fritsch sought to do more.  His ambition covered fifteen years of research and writing, attempting to give as complete a picture as possible of the regiment’s origins, its battles, and its dissolution.  Moreover, he believed it absolutely necessary to explore not only the highlights and triumphs of battle, but also the darker side of war, where desertion, flagging morale, and questions of morality always lurked.

The regiment’s soldiers came primarily from two counties in Ohio: Summit and Ashtabula, both of which were notorious hotbeds of anti-slavery sentiment and outspoken abolitionists like Joshua R. Giddings.  The area was so closely associated with the abolitionist movement throughout the nation that the 29th OVI became concerned about their own safety, as they feared they would be hanged if captured by the enemy.  The creation of the 29th was largely based on the disappointment they felt as part of the 19th Ohio Volunteer, where in their short time served as part of this regiment, they were not paid and were expected to enforce the Fugitive Slave laws; in effect, making proud soldiers with a history of abolitionist sentiment into slave catchers.  Giddings, who largely influenced the creation of the 29th in the first place, saw their purpose not as a fight to salvage the broken Union, as so many others of his day saw the purpose of the war, but instead saw the soldier’s sacrifice as the beginning of the end for slavery.  In a letter to Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, he wrote that, “The first gun fired at Fort Sumter rang out the death-knell of slavery.” (p.14)

Fritsch’s account also highlights the changing attitudes with which soldiers confronted the hardness and unforgiving nature of war.  In the spring of 1862, soldiers had backtracked their steps a number of miles to repair a fence that the soldiers had damaged.  They did so because they did not want to offend the owner of the fence.  A year later, in the summer of 1863, between the Chancellorsville and Gettysburg campaigns, the 29th was camped near Leesburg.  A farmer nearby vocalized his support of the confederacy, and subsequently had his home and mill burned to the ground.  The Union soldiers “let it be known that others in the neighborhood would fare the same if they did not keep shut.” (p.249)

Fritsch’s account follows soldiers through the many years of war, including their participation and action in well-known battles as Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.  Their largest loss of life came at a place known as Dug Gap in May of 1864, where approximately 120 men were killed or wounded. While the number of total causalities varies for the 29th, approximately 126 men were killed outright in battle, while many others died of either wounds sustained during battle, fatigue, or disease.  In the SeCheverell history, 541 men were listed as killed, wounded, captured, or missing.  In the beginning, their numbers were around 1,000 soldiers.  As they came home at the war’s end, a parade in Cleveland showcased a mere 235 soldiers of the 29th. (p.377)  War had been hard on the families and friends of Summit and Ashtabula counties.

Fritsch’s work is an honest account of the history of the 29th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.  As he argues in the preface, his purpose was to give an even-handed account of the trials and tribulations of the regiment that was not strictly black and white, but rather highlighted the variety of triumphs and failures felt by these men.  In this, he succeeds.  His attention to detail through extensive archival research creates a description of these men that is thorough and satisfying.  Although no doubt a lengthy account of the 29th through its inception, war years, and dissolution, this work reads easily.  In addition to his close attention to detail, Fritsch’s narrative flows easily throughout the account, pulling the reader into this narrative he has expertly woven.

Natalie Hall-Hiles

University of Akron