Book Review: All For The Union: The Saga of One Northern Family Fighting the Civil War

To have the opportunity to transcribe and study a massive collection of primary source letters from one family during the Civil War comes all too infrequently for historians and museum professionals. But such an opportunity was gifted to John Simpson by Director David Freece of the Cowlitz County Historical Museum in Kelso, Washington. He was given the chance to read and inventory a donation of 180 letters written by three soldiers (two brothers and one brother-in-law) from the Ellithorpe family of Pennsylvania. Their experiences in the Army of the Potomac have been faithfully interpreted, cross referencing the letters to other primary source documentation about their respective regiments and adding a dash of wonderful context that makes All For The Union: The Saga of One Northern Family Fighting the Civil War a great concentrated look at the lives of soldiers in the Civil War.

Phillip Ellithorpe, the most prolific of the letter writers, served in the 13th Pennsylvania Reserves (also known as the Bucktails), mostly as a stretcher barer, providing a unique first-hand account of the medical side of the regiment’s history as he helped to carry the wounded from the battlefields at Antietam and Fredericksburg. Philander Ellithorpe served in the 27th New York and 2nd New York Mounted Rifles during the war. Though he wrote comparatively fewer letters than his brother, Phillip, Simpson provides a look into his time in the army through less direct methods like regimental histories or accounts from his fellow soldiers. Asa Burleson, who married the sister of Phillip and Philander, Ann, is also featured as a character in this multi-biographical work as Simpson shares the contents of his few letters, paired with the history of the 5th Vermont and 1st New York Dragoons. Though he contributed no letters, Oliver Moore of the 1st Minesota and Battery I, 1st U.S. Light Artillery played a vital role in preserving these letters for posterity.

The book takes off at a slow start, mainly because Simpson made the decision to provide extensive background information about the Ellithorpe family, reaching back a few generations before the Civil War. This background helps the reader to understand the modest, middle-class lifestyle of the Ellithorpes prior to the war and the intricate family drama that unfolds on the home front. Much of the book is dedicated to an overview of the events of the war while shedding a spotlight on the Ellithorpes throughout the conflict. Their intimate feelings about the war, politics, generals, and soldier life drips from the pages as Simpson provides great snapshots from their letters. For easy reading, he adds section breaks with titles that also helps for later referencing, devoting paragraphs or pages to a specific aspect of their experience or explaining the actions of their regiments during certain battles. He takes the broader picture of the war at large and then hones in on the Ellithorpes, their regiments, and their family. Simpson leaves no gaps in detailing the whole story of the war for these boys who became men through their trials and hardships. All For The Union is a great compilation of personal narratives and biographies about the soldiers while also giving great material for those who are interested in learning about their regiments.

All For The Union: The Saga of One Northern Family Fighting the Civil War
John A. Simpson
Stackpole Books
$35.99 Hardback
Reviewed by Sheritta Bitikofer

5 Responses to Book Review: All For The Union: The Saga of One Northern Family Fighting the Civil War

    1. These are officers that were associated with the Ellithorpes’ regiments at some point during the war. It took some digging because I lost the dust jacket in the recent move, but I think I narrowed down who they are. The middle officer is Colonel Henry E. Smalley of the 5th Vermont (shown on page 84), man to the left is Colonel Elisha G. Marshall, 14th New York Heavy Artillery, Provisional Brigade (pg. 259), and the man on the right is Captain/Major/Lt Colonel John I. Curtin, 45th Pennsylvania (p. 263).

  1. Elisha Hunt Rhodes had this title first, could not a distinguishing title have been obtained? It’s a good title and I get it, the family was all in on the war, but someone is going to buy the wrong book. Nonetheless, Huzzah! for the author to make this treasure available.

    1. I agree. The title threw me off at first, but the additional subtitle should help mitigate some confusion (or that’s the hope, at least!)

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