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War's Relentless Hand

Twelve Tales of Civil War Soldiers

Conflicting Worlds: New Dimensions of the American Civil War

304 pages / 6.00 x 9.00 inches / 10 Halftones

Civil War

  Hardcover / 9780807131909 / October 2006

A happy-go-lucky soldier falls at Gettysburg. An officer survives a hair-raising escape after capture at Gettysburg, only to die in the Atlanta campaign. A young volunteer retreats into insanity. Though they did most of the fighting and dying in the American Civil War, "ordinary" soldiers largely went unheralded in their day and have long since been forgotten. Mark H. Dunkelman retrieves twelve of these common soldiers from obscurity and presents intimate accounts of their harrowing, heartbreaking, and occasionally humorous experiences. Their stories, true to the last historical detail yet as dramatic as the most powerful fiction, put a human face on the terrible ordeal of a country at war with itself.

These were soldiers from the 154th New York Volunteer Infantry, a regiment that Dunkelman has studied for forty years. He weaves a complex and intimate portrait of each man—portraits that reveal how, even for the common soldier, war was a cataclysmic event forever marking his life and the lives of those around him. Through a vast array of primary sources, Dunkelman reconstructs the lives and legacies of soldiers who died on the battlefield and others who later died of war-related injuries, some who were permanently disabled and others who saw their families undergo trauma.

A reluctant soldier is doomed by red tape. A veteran is crippled for life because of his brutal treatment as a prisoner of war. Father and son are killed at Chancellorsville. A dying private is immortalized by Walt Whitman. Separated by the war, a husband and wife agonize when their children contract a deadly disease. A veteran claiming he was blinded by campfire smoke is at the center of one of the largest pension scandals of the postwar era.

Recalling a lost world, War's Relentless Hand tells of the resilience, perseverance, and loyalty that distinguished these men, the families and communities that supported them, and the faith and character that sustained them. Though the full human cost and grief of the Civil War can never be calculated, deeply felt and carefully retold lives like these help convey its magnitude. 

Mark H. Dunkelman is the author of Brothers One and All: Esprit de Corps in a Civil War Regiment; War's Relentless Hand: Twelve Tales of Civil War Soldiers; and Marching with Sherman: Through Georgia and the Carolinas with the 154th New York.

Review Quotes for War's Relentless Hand

“Mark Dunkelman has done it again—produced another truly outstanding book that transcends the narrow confines of a single regiment or a handful of soldiers to speak eloquently of the meaning and impact of the Civil War in the lives of ordinary Americans. This is one of the best Civil War books I’ve ever read.” —Steven E. Woodworth

“Dunkelman’s excellent storytelling and characterizations make this, his fourth book about the 154th, attractive to military buffs and general readers alike.”  —Booklist

“The detail Dunkelman gives is amazing and the stories of these soldiers run the gamut from the heart-rending to amusing while covering most of life’s experiences in between . . . Dunkelman writes well and the stories flow smoothly, holding the reader’s attention . . . Dunkelman has done a fine job of collecting the tales of these 12 men who served and I recommend War’s Relentless Hand for those readers interested in the common soldier of the Civil War.”  —The Civil War News

“To be honest I was a little wary of this book. It does not have the analytical rigor of his regimental study [Brothers One and All], which is somewhat surprising for an academic press book. It will be interesting to see if reviewers harp on that alone. I say that because if they do dwell on that alone they would have missed something that I am still trying to put my finger on. Books on the common soldier are nothing new and the number and sophistication continues to increase with each passing year. That said, there is something attractive about a stripped down study of average soldiers without the analytical framework. Each chapter begins with a trip to a cemetery, which the author narrates. At first I found it to be distracting but then I was reminded of a common practice in the Jewish tradition, which involves placing a stone on the grave being visited. It is both a sign of respect and a sign that someone was present. In a way Dunkelman’s book functions along similar lines.”  —Kevin Levin, Civil War Memory

“After reading War’s Relentless Hand, the reader cannot but come away with the feeling that he knows these 12 men well, and is all the better for it.”  —Military Images

“A valuable read for anyone interested in the life of the common soldier in the war.”  —The New York Military Affairs Symposium Review

“Dunkelman’s innovative approach . . . does far more than recount the wartime experiences these men shared. Instead, these tales encompass their transformations from civilian to soldier and back again (if they survived), and explores each man’s relationships with their family and friends whom they relied upon for physical and emotional support. Such an approach humanizes the impersonal Civil War regiment and provides a more complete portrait of how Civil War service affected all aspects of American society . . . Perhaps no regiment has a better champion than the 154th New York has in Dunkelman. Future historians would be wise to take note of his novel approach of giving a full accounting of . . . antebellum, wartime, and postwar experiences within a single regiment. We can better understand and personalize the conflict from this type of study and glean how the Civil War and its memory have shaped us as well.”  —Civil War Book Review

“If other regimental historians got to know the men in their units as well as Dunkelman has, none have so capably applied what they have learned to the broader worlds of Civil War soldiering. With War’s Relentless Hand, Dunkelman risks drifting from the sure path cut in broader-reaching regimental histories by narrowing his focus to a mere dozen of his familiar western New Yorkers. Instead, his typically deft exploration of Civil War history from the bottom up illuminates the effect of the war on soldiers and their families and produces an entertaining addition to a valuable body of work . . . It’s content is lively, touching and timeless, and any readers who are drawn to the war’s human side should seek it out.”  —Civil War Times

“Forty years of Dunkelman’s work on the regiment shines through an excellent narrative . . . This book is an enjoyable read.”  —Journal of Southern History

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