Mountaineers in Gray: The Nineteenth Tennessee Volunteer Infantry Regiment, C.S.A. - Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History

Mountaineers in Gray: The Nineteenth Tennessee Volunteer Infantry Regiment, C.S.A.

By John D. Fowler. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2004. ISBN: 978-1572333147

The state of Tennessee possesses three different sections distinct according to their geographical build: middle, east, and west, with eastern Tennessee being the most mountainous. This mountainous region became the birthplace for the Nineteenth Tennessee Volunteer regiment of the Confederate Army. The Nineteenth was in many ways just a normal regiment; however, the problematic location split the support of the men of Eastern Tennessee between North and South. John Fowler honors the men from Eastern Tennessee who fought for the Confederate Army in his book, Mountaineers in Grey: The Nineteenth Tennessee Volunteer Infantry Regiment, C.S.A. Fowler provides an accurate glance into the past depicting these men before, during, and after the Civil War. After introducing the region, Fowler takes the reader on an adventure through the experiences of the regiment, telling war stories and providing facts, transforming the reader into an average soldier. In an effort to provide as much information as possible, Fowler not only describes the battles as they were fought and camp-life hardships, but he also highlights three main things: the social background of the men and it’s relevance to the Nineteenth, the political background of the period, and the economic hardships that the men’s families suffered.

Men of higher social standing and wealth were elected officers in The Nineteenth, which displays class struggles. Fowler explains this fact thoroughly in Chapter Two with a statistical analysis of how much money the elected officials had versus the rest of the regiment. Fowler’s analysis of historical data revealed “Of the 215 farms operated by men in the regimental sample, over 73 percent were larger than the regional average of 80 improved acres per farm” (24). Fowler, digging deeper, breaks down the amount of land and income some of the ranked officers received. This shows that men clearly were not participating in the war for the sole purpose of obtaining money for their families. Fowler discusses in several periods throughout the book that the men of the first enlistment were the richest of the East Tennessee region to join the army.

Social background, though important, is undermined by army and camp social life. Army social life was cruel and relentless, stealing away many men from the line of active duty. Fowler describes camp conditions lucidly throughout his book. He focuses on the presence of disease and the prevalence of idleness in each chapter, including newfound past times of the soldiers, beginning with mere boredom in Chapter Three with the activities “idleness, mealtime, and drill while enduring primitive living conditions and frequent illness” (39). In Chapter Six, the men “hunted, drank, gambled, and frequented prostitutes” (131) to alleviate boredom. At the beginning of Chapter Three William Phipps displays his desire to return home, something that many men shared.

Fowler encompasses the book with his study of politics and how they affect the region, revealing the actions of the men to be directly or indirectly related to politics. General Bragg is an excellent character to observe Fowler’s prowess of explanation. Through Fowler’s descriptions of Bragg’s movements, one infers the apathy directed towards the general. Fowler uses sarcasm to portray the apparent idiocy of Bragg, who was supported by a major politician of the time period. In a period of dissention due to Bragg’s incompetence, “Jefferson Davis traveled to Bragg’s headquarters in mid-October intending to rid the army of it’s dissention…Davis chose to sustain Bragg” (119), which in contrast lead to Bragg’s arrogance. Taking every chance possible to explain not only the politics of war, but the political activity of the time period, Fowler’s descriptions are extremely revealing, a deep insight to the time period and how the men were affected.

Economic hardships are not a key point in Fowler’s book; however, they play an important role in the soldiers’ lives. When the war arrives at the region of East Tennessee, many men flee; some even “swam the Tennessee River and turned themselves over to Federal sentries” (107). Men like Daniel Miller came and went as they pleased. Though many deserters later re-joined the army, these men were unreliable, sometimes even returning home. In letters depicted by William Phipps in Chapter Three, men inquired about their holdings.

Fowler effectively shows every aspect of life for the Nineteenth Tennessee; however, he has zero sympathy for his readers. Fowler’s approach to communicate information is to drill a substantial hole in the reader’s head and dump vast quantities of facts inside. Fowler’s second chapter especially portrays this methodology. Fowler seems to have sat down, compiled a list of statistics, and successfully unloaded all of them inside one chapter. As if this were not enough, frequently throughout the book, Fowler prompts the reader to return to the dreadfully dry chapter to recollect the information. If the reader strives through the first two dull chapters that recite a number of statistics, they see that the story develops and attains a quicker pace.

Fowler successfully portrays the men, their sufferings, and their experiences. His target reader, the educated community, obtains a thorough knowledge of the Nineteenth at the close of the book. Excluding the monotonous second chapter, there is not a dull moment in Mountaineers in Gray. In his third chapter, Fowler changes his writing from that of a professor to that of an informer who reaches for a larger audience. As mentioned by Charles F. Brian Jr., “it is not a compelling, page-turning narrative of war; this book is an important piece of scholarship, one that stands as a model for the study of other regiments.” If Fowler had intended to reach for the populace who had not even attempted a higher education, his book would have been page-turning. He carries a serious tone that affects each person differently.

Fowler’s valiant attempt at explaining the realism of war and the homecoming proved effective. Historical narratives like Fowler’s benefit the public because they describe events and what happened to the people. According to W. Eric Emerson, “While Fowler is adept at outlining the motivation of unit members, he is also skilled at documenting the regiment’s wartime service and its members’ return to East Tennessee after the war.” The return home for the men of the Nineteenth was more grueling than the war itself, making these men especially commendable. Unlike many areas in the south, secessionists and unionists inhabited east Tennessee. In Fowler’s final chapter he depicts the unionists’ scorn for ex-Confederates that led to the final battle of the Nineteenth. This fight is the last fought for the now demolished Confederacy- a spoiled homecoming.

In all, John Fowler achieves excellence in Mountaineers in Gray. The story starts slow, but his vivid descriptions are superb, and he carries his reader through the war with skill, expertise, and knowledge. Every scene he describes creates imagery. Upon finishing the book, one sympathizes for those bereaved families of the dead and acquires a genuine like for the characters.

Michelle Teplis
Armstrong State University

About the author

A senior student, Michelle Teplis transferred from Kennesaw State University to Armstrong State University in Fall 2010 to finish prerequisites for the nursing program and to complete a history degree. At Kennesaw, she was a member of all honors societies including Phi Sigma Pi, Delta Epsilon Iota, Phi Eta Sigma, National Society of Collegiate Scholars.

Recommended citation

Michelle Teplis, review of Mountaineers in Gray: The Nineteenth Tennessee Volunteer Infantry Regiment, C.S.A., by John D. Fowler, Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 1, no. 1 (Spring 2011).

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