Book Review: Faces of Union Soldiers at Culp’s Hill: Gettysburg’s Critical Defense

Faces of Union Soldiers at Culp’s Hill: Gettysburg’s Critical Defense. By Joseph Stahl and Matthew Borders. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2023. Softcover, 176 pp. $23.99.

Reviewed by Tim Talbott

Few aspects of the Civil War help enthusiasts make connections to the people who lived 160 years ago quite like photography does. It is one thing to read a soldier’s biography, to hear about the challenges that person faced during their service, perhaps find out their motivation for enlisting, and then learn what ultimately happened to them. However, when one is able to add a photograph to a soldier’s story, that image undeniably brings about a more complete understanding of who that soldier was as a human being. Perhaps this is one reason why books like Faces of Union Soldiers at Culp’s Hill: Gettysburg’s Critical Defense have become so popular.

This book is the latest in a series of “Faces of Union Soldiers” titles by co-authors Joseph Stahl and Matthew Borders, and whose previous History Press studies include profiles of men who fought at Fredericksburg (2022), South Mountain and Harpers Ferry (2021), and Antietam (2019). Somewhat in the same vein as Ronald Coddington’s “Faces of” series[i], the Culp’s Hill book shares the carte de visite photograph images and stories of 28 soldiers who served in the Twelfth Corps and defended this significant portion of the Gettysburg battlefield.

The book opens with a Forward, that provides a brief history of the Twelfth Corps at Culp’s Hill by D. Scott Hartwig, the former long-time historian at Gettysburg National Military Park. Also found at the beginning of the book is a short description of what carte de visite photographs are and their immense popularity during the Civil War era.

The authors organize Faces of Union Soldiers at Culp’s Hill into four chapters, one each for the four brigades under examination. However, only the regiments with soldier’s stories and images receive coverage, while other regiments in the brigades go unrepresented.

Receiving attention first is Brig. Gen. George Sears Greene’s Brigade, which included the 60th, 78th, 102nd, 137th, and 149th New York Infantry regiments. The book shares the stories of seven of the brigade’s soldiers, who served in four of the brigade’s five regiments. Col. Charles Candy’s Brigade is next. Consisting of the 5th, 7th, 29th, and 66th Ohio Infantries, and the 28th and 147th Pennsylvania Infantry regiments, readers learn about seven of the soldiers that fought in four of Candy’s Brigade’s six regiments. Col. Silas Colgrove’s mixed brigade included the 7th Indiana, 2nd Massachusetts, 13th New Jersey, 107th New York, and 3rd Wisconsin Infantry regiments. Again, seven soldiers receive profiles from three of the brigade’s five infantry regiments, and one from Battery M, 1st New York Light Artillery. Last but not least is Col. Archibald McDougal’s Brigade. It was composed of the 5th and 20th Connecticut, 3rd Maryland, 123rd and 145th New York, and the 46th Pennsylvania Infantry regiments. The seven soldiers examined from this brigade come from five of the brigade’s six regiments.

Each chapter follows a basic but effective formula. First, the brigade’s role at Culp’s Hill receives explanation in the chapter’s opening. Then, for each soldier who has a photograph, the authors offer a brief history of his regiment’s war experience. Next, a biography of the depicted soldier—much of which comes from their compiled military service record—gives readers insight into his life both before and after the war (if he survived), as well as his service experiences. Within each soldier’s biography, the authors dissect the photograph by explaining when possible the details of who made the image, where it was taken, what the soldier is wearing, the poses they strike, and even how they style their hair and beards, for those that have facial hair. The details the authors provide can be intriguing, but a noticeable pattern in the descriptions quickly develops and becomes a bit trite. However, often when working with similar images and information, there are only so many ways 28 soldiers can receive differentiation in their coverage.

Four maps by Brad Gottfried show the Culp’s Hill troop locations at the beginning of each of the four brigade’s chapters. Also included is an appendix that provides regimental strength and casualty numbers for the 17 regiments that receive profiles. Endnotes, a thorough bibliography, and a helpful index all allow readers to quickly reference sources the authors incorporated and find information shared throughout the book.

Faces of Union Soldiers at Culp’s Hill: Gettysburg’s Critical Defense offers readers a wealth of information in a highly accessible and logical format. Students of the Battle of Gettysburg and Civil War portrait photography will find it particularly valuable.

[i] Ronald Coddington’s fantastic series, published Johns Hopkins University Press include: Faces of the Civil War: An Album of Union Soldiers and their Stories (2004); Faces of the Confederacy: An Album of Southern Soldiers and Their Stories (2009); African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album (2012); Faces of the Civil War Navies: An Album of Union and Confederate Sailors (2016); and Faces of Civil War Nurses (2020).

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