For more than a quarter of a century, Col. Harold Simpson's multivolume work on General John Bell Hood's Texas Brigade has been the standard reference for that famed group of Civil War soldiers. Edward B. Williams, an independent scholar with a Ph.D. in history from Texas A&M University, attempts to update the previous publications with Hood's Texas Brigade in the Civil War. He argues that Simpson's work is in need of updating not due to the author's oversight, but because of the availability of previously unknown or inaccessible primary sources. Williams unveils a soldier-centered narrative that reflects his clear admiration for the exploits of that hardy group of Texans, Arkansans, South Carolinians, and Georgians who fought at places like Gaines Mill and Gettysburg and ended up surrendering at Appomattox Courthouse. The book is arranged chronologically, taking readers from Texas secession and the formation of the brigade to the twentieth-century reunions and remembrances of its members.
Williams's admiration for the soldiers in the brigade is understandable, considering the years he spent researching the unit; any historian poring over countless letters and diaries that reveal the innermost thoughts of those who have experienced both periods of intermingled boredom and horror will have a difficult time extricating themselves from the grasp of those long dead. The author often allows brigade members to speak for themselves, which is a welcome device in a book focusing on soldiers' experiences. Hood himself is only present on the edges of the story, thus ensuring the common soldier remains the focal point of the narrative. That being said, the author's glowing portrayal of the brigade's story as being one of "overwhelming difficulties surmounted in achieving military prominence" (3) hampers objective analysis of its contributions to the war. This hagiographic approach leads the author to claim that Antietam "rivaled Agincourt in its unlikelihood," a certainly generous assessment of that battle and its outcome. In addition, no effort is made to analyze the collective motivations of those who enlisted or why the brigade won the reputation for being one of the fiercest in Lee's army.
Williams's book is clearly more accessible than Simpson's saga if only [End Page 213] for its relative brevity. Scholars and general readers alike will enjoy being able to thumb through a single volume summarizing the exploits of Hood's Texas Brigade, and the narrative is peppered with numerous anecdotes relating how common soldiers experienced the ebb and flow of war. Yet, this reviewer wishes that the author had done more to explicitly state what he adds to the existing brigade historiography or how he updates Simpson's work.
While Williams successfully uses numerous primary sources throughout the text, there is a noticeable dearth of secondary sources, especially more recent works, that might provide better context. For example, Charles Brooks's work on the brigade's makeup and motivation is curiously absent from a book that focuses on the common soldier's experiences. Also, it would have been beneficial to refer to the work of historians like Reid Mitchell or Brent Nosworthy to compare the brigade's experiences with those of Civil War soldiers in general. Though Williams's book is certainly a capable addition to the existing historiography due to its emphasis on the common soldier, a single-volume assessment of the brigade's social composition and military contributions that incorporates the latest research still eludes us.