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Among the highlights of the vast body of literature on the American Civil War, in addition to accounts of great battles and biographies of great generals, are the stories of the common soldiers who made up the armies blue and gray. A number of hard-fighting units earned legendary reputations that endure to this day. Among Confederate forces, the Texas Brigade, Virginia's Stonewall Brigade, and Kentucky's Orphan Brigade spring to mind. To these storied ranks of formidable Confederate campaigners, we can add the Army of Northern Virginia's Florida Brigade, whose story is told in A Small but Spartan Band by Zack C. Waters and James C. Edmonds.
Waters and Edmonds plainly state in their introduction that their book was written to fill a void, referring to the overlooked nature of the military contribution of Florida to the Civil War. Known then as "The Land of Flowers," the Confederacy's southernmost state was also its least populous. Three regiments, the Second, Fifth, and Eighth Florida, originally made up the brigade sent to fight under Lee, going on to fight at such bloody battles as Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and Cold Harbor. By 1864, the brigade had shrunk from an original theoretical strength of 3,000 down to 275 men when they were reinforced by 1,200 Floridians who had been garrisoning their home state.
Confederate sources are relatively harder to come by than Union sources, and in this case the Florida Brigade seems to have been particularly challenging to research. An "archival vacuum" exists, respected historian Robert K. Krick explains in his foreword, in part because many Florida soldiers despaired of their letters getting through and stopped writing home. Other times, after-action reports for some of the battles of the brigade are missing or nonexistent. That Waters and Edmonds accomplished so much with so little makes their work all the more impressive. A Small but Spartan Band represents a history over twenty years in the making, its authors having scoured archives across the country to assemble their narrative. Only occasionally is the dearth of Florida sources noticeable. In such cases, Waters and Edmonds manage to fill the vacuum with accounts from Confederate [End Page 418] soldiers fighting nearby or Union soldiers opposing them, such as the captured Yankee who lamented, "God save our poor fellows if there's more than one Florida regiment … It is no use killing them for they won't run" (p. 21).
Waters and Edmonds succeed not only in retelling history but interpreting it as well. Several times they address criticism of the brigade, but never does it seem like special pleading. The authors frankly discuss the desertion problem which plagued the Florida Brigade and the rest of Lee's army during the grinding siege of Petersburg in 1864-65, demonstrating that among the Flowers, one third of the 1864 reinforcements deserted, while among the veteran Second, Fifth, and Eighth Regiments "less than two of every ten soldiers took French leave" (pp.166-67). One of the great insights of the book is the extent to which Civil War soldiers themselves jealously guarded their units' reputations during and after the war. After Gettysburg, a "newspaper war" ensued in which the Floridians forced southern newspapers to retract accounts which criticized their contribution to the fighting. "The men say that no matter how bravely they act they can get no credit for it at home or abroad," wrote Captain Council Bryan, "and I think they are more than half right" (p. 86).
A Small but Spartan Band offers a thoughtful history of the Florida Brigade and a briskly written narrative, with concise summaries of the battles and campaigns suitable for both professional and armchair historians. The book is also generously illustrated with twenty-one images, including ten maps. With this volume, the authors have gone a long way to restoring the credit Captain Bryan and his comrades deserve. [End Page 419...