- Last to Leave the Field: The Life and Letters of First Sergeant Ambrose Henry Hayward, 28th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry
Ambrose Henry Hayward had a typically atypical military career in the Union army. Like many veterans, he volunteered in the first flush of patriotism following Fort Sumter, and he spent his days in uniform as an infantryman. During his years of service his unit participated in battles both famous and minor. He saw friends killed in battle and others die from diseases during campaign lulls. Hayward died at Pine Knob during the Atlanta campaign in 1864.
In some ways, however, Hayward’s war proved less common than that of the average enlistee. He hailed from Massachusetts but served in the Twenty-eighth Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. His peers elected him to be a corporal, and over the course of the war, attrition, the promotions of his superiors, and his own competence resulted in his steady promotion to first sergeant of his company. Had he lived longer, he would very likely have been a second lieutenant.
Hayward’s experience seems out of the main in three other ways. First, because the Twenty-eighth served in the White Star Division, they fought in the Shenandoah Valley, with the Army of the Potomac, and then traversed the country to fight in the western theater in Tennessee and Georgia. Few units made such a move. Second, there is considerable evidence that Hayward “marked his life with incomparable bravery,” as editor Timothy Orr says in the introduction (xxi). Orr’s analysis of Hayward’s letters themselves justifies this conclusion; one of his officers nominated Hayward for the Medal of Honor, and the sergeant’s coolness in battle proved repeatedly noteworthy. Finally, he is unusual in having left behind such a strong set of letters covering three full years of the war.
Orr has done a fine job editing these letters. In addition to providing a helpful introduction and an explanation of his editorial method, Orr [End Page 454] groups the letters into eleven chronological chapters. At the beginning of each chapter, he summarizes Hayward’s experiences and offers some larger context for them. This organization is effective, as it breaks down what otherwise would have been a long introduction into its component chronological parts. A number of the chapters are further enhanced by eight custom maps showing where Hayward’s regiment moved during key battles. Inexplicably, Chancellorsville has no map, while Gettysburg and Antietam are represented with useful ones.
Edited collections do not often reshape historiographical debates, and Hayward’s 133 letters are not likely to change the minds of many readers. His letters do give us some nuanced insight into a number of people and events during the war, to say nothing of how Hayward reveals his own opinions and attitudes over time. As Orr points out, the Twenty-eighth Pennsylvania has no unit history, and until such time as there is one, Last to Leave the Field serves that role. Beyond his unit, Hayward offers the careful reader details and observations about the White Star Division, its leader John W. Geary, and how the men dealt with sickness and boredom; the letters are even a useful source on Civil War food. The reader is treated to Hayward’s account of some of the most famous battles fought in the east and, because of the White Star Division’s unusual experience of being reassigned to Tennessee, the campaign around Chattanooga and Atlanta. Equally important, these letters treat lesser-known battles like Bolivar Heights, Taylor’s Ridge, and Dug Gap. Reference to other incidents of note that might be hard to find elsewhere also appears here: firsthand accounts of the looting of Turner Ashby’s house; a scouting mission behind Lee’s line following Chancellorsville, in which Hayward was one of a select group to participate; and numerous skirmishes. Hayward shared his opinion of political leaders, including Lincoln, who did not overly impress him, and revealed...