From Antietam to Appomattox with Upton’s Regulars: A Civil War Memoir from the 121st New York Regiment. By Dewitt Clinton Beckwith and edited by Salvatore G. Cilella, Jr. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2023. Softcover, 249 pp. $49.95.
Reviewed by Tyler McGraw
The 121st New York Infantry is one of those regiments that found themselves in some of the most intense engagements of the Civil War’s Eastern Theater. Fighting at places like Salem Church, Rappahannock Station, and probably most famously at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, the 121st is well-known to Civil War scholars and enthusiasts alike. Now, thanks to editor, Salvatore Cilella, Dewitt Clinton Beckwith’s memoir, penned by and detailing the regiment’s experiences from the perspective of one of its privates, offers readers the opportunity to learn even more about this famous unit.
Beckwith’s memoir however was not originally in the form of a book or even a collection of papers, rather it was a series of 53 columns published in the Herkimer Democrat, an obscure upstate New York newspaper. Beckwith’s series appeared almost 30 years after the war ended, running from July 4, 1893, to July 4, 1894. Due to the increasing interest in veteran’s accounts of the war at that time, the editors of the Herkimer Democrat convinced Beckwith to pen his recollections. His entries were not of those from the eyes of a general or a politician, but rather from a young private soldier in one of their state’s regiments, so readers found Beckwith’s experiences and his articles interesting.
The identity of the articles’ author, who we now know was Beckwith, was initially kept from the readers, which only added to the intrigue of the series. The Herkimer Democrat’s rival, the Little Falls Times, speculated that Beckwith was the author, while others guessed various other veterans penned the series.
One of the reasons that likely contributed to Beckwith authoring the 53 columns is his reading of various other accounts from members of the 121st and noticing that his experiences often differed. Cilella wisely reminds us however, that these are memories written thirty years after the war, and therefore we should consider their content carefully. Beckwith did at least consult sources that were available at the time of his writing. Two that he quotes from are Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs and William Fox’s Regimental Losses in the American Civil War.
Beckwith enlisted as a boy at the age of 15, initially serving with the 91st New York Infantry in Florida in 1861. He then returned to New York and enlisted in the 121st. After he joined the 121st he did not miss an engagement in which the regiment participated; Antietam being the first and Appomattox being the last, thus the title of the memoir.
For those familiar with the controversy surrounding the promotion of Gen. Emory Upton after the battle of Spotsylvania Court House, Beckwith pays particular attention to that topic. In the introduction, Cilella writes that Beckwith does make the claim that Upton was promoted on the spot and even carried borrowed general’s stars until official ones were eventually issued. However, with the lack of corroborating evidence, and the amount of attention that the promotion narrative received, Cilella does note that Beckwith’s account is probably speculative.
Salvatore Cilella’s editing of this memoir is nothing short of incredible. By taking a series of accounts that remained hidden in plain sight for many years, Cilella’s efforts brings them back into the light as a memoir that is not only readable but also has the tone of an adventure story. This memoir is an absolute must read for anyone who has an interest in the 121st New York Infantry, Emory Upton, or even the VI Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Dewitt Clinton Beckwith’s story is now more accessible than ever before, and it is one that deserves the attention this book helps give it.
Tyler McGraw is the founder of The Unfiltered Historian Podcast and is site manager for the Manassas National Battlefield Bookstore. Tyler is an avid reader of anything Civil War and enjoys spending time on battlefields in the Central Virginia area, as well as at Antietam.