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in Hard Fighting (FLS 3/10/07)


Rush's Lancers: The Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry in the Civil War by Eric J. Wittenberg
By Michael Aubrecht, FLS Town & County
Date published: 3/10/2007 CIVIL WAR

"Expertly researched, even-handed new book does justice to a storied Union regiment--the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, known as 'Rush's Lancers.'"

Of all the branches that existed in the American military during the 19th century, perhaps none is as highly celebrated as the cavalry.

Even at the time of the War Between the States, many of these horse soldiers rapidly rose to celebrity status, as the tales of their service in the saddle became legendary. Much of this partiality was due to the swashbuckling personas of their commanders, including Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart and Union Gen. George Armstrong Custer. Both of these highly publicized men became larger than life, continuing to dominate much of today's Civil War memory. But for every one of these outlandish cavaliers, there were hundreds of other troopers from many regiments who also galloped into history.

One of those regiments was the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, known as Rush's Lancers. Considered by experts to be one of the finest volunteer cavalry regiments of the entire Civil War, the Lancers boast a storied history marked by hard combat and even harder riding. In February of 2000, one of America's most respected Civil War historians, Alexandria resident Brian Pohanka, heralded the 6th when he said, "A superb regiment, noted for intelligence, bravery and stalwart service, the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry was an elite outfit, in the truest sense."

Another well-respected historian, Eric Wittenberg, has published more than a dozen books on cavalry operations, including "Gettysburg's Forgotten Cavalry Actions" and last year's critically acclaimed "Plenty of Blame to Go Around: Jeb Stuart's Controversial Ride to Gettysburg." His latest title, "Rush's Lancers: The Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry in the Civil War," is a detailed study of this volunteer regiment and the remarkable men who made up its ranks.

In a well-rounded portrayal, Wittenberg presents the entire spectrum of the establishment, training, deployment and effective use of a federal cavalry regiment during the war. He also depicts the individuality of Rush's Lancers and describes what set those troops apart from their contemporaries. Unlike other units that were made up of citizen soldiers, the 6th Pennsylvania broke all status barriers and was assembled from Philadelphia's social elite and working class. Despite being amateurs, all of these soldiers proudly answered the call to preserve the Union, leaving their differences back on the home front.

One of the regiment's equalizing factors may have been the antiquated weapons issued when it was first deployed. As with many volunteer units formed after the start of the war, the 6th Pennsylvania was woefully lacking in supplies.

The regiment's nickname of "lancers" came about because each member was issued a 9-foot-long wooden lance tipped with an 11-inch-long steel blade. Copied from an Austrian pattern, each lance was topped by a scarlet pennant, which unfortunately became a bull's-eye for Confederate sharpshooters. As a novelty, this archaic weapon certainly set the 6th apart from other regiments, but as a last resort, it proved to be cumbersome and impractical in the Eastern Campaign.

Regardless of its medieval armaments, the 6th Pennsylvania identified itself with a proud lineage shared by the 1st Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry, a militia unit that was originally formed to serve as George Washington's personal bodyguard during the Revolutionary War. This honorable legacy carried over into the regiment's Union ranks and forged the foundation for its extraordinary service.

As with all of Wittenberg's studies, "Rush's Lancers" is filled with primary source material, including letters, diaries, memoirs, pension files, contemporary newspaper coverage and official records. Through a very thorough yet enjoyable narrative, the author takes the reader on a ride-along with the troopers as they carry on their prestigious legacy in engagements at Hanover Court House, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Brandy Station and Appomattox. It is a very impressive service record, to say the least.

Most impressive is the common bond that was formed by these uncommon brothers. The author does a wonderful job of depicting their battlefield experiences from the start of the war until its end.

More than Wittenberg's previous titles, this project is especially personal to the author for a number of reasons. In an e-mail interview, Wittenberg revealed what makes this particular book so special for him.

"It actually began with my attendance at Dickinson College, where I was a member of its 210th graduating class. Dr. Benjamin Rush, who was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, founded the university in 1773," he said. "That got me interested in the Rush family and its contributions. As a native Philadelphian, I was, of course, familiar with Dr. Rush's exploits. Later, when I learned that this regiment with the funny-looking weapons was raised by his grandson, it further interested me."

He added: "In 1992, I discovered the first regimental history, Samuel L. Gracey's Annals of the Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry. The book was published using a quaint, old-fashioned type that interested me. I started studying the regiment and found name after name that a Philadelphian with an interest in history would recognize. My parents moved to Reading, Pa., when I was a child. Company G was from Reading and the commander of that company, George Clymer, came from a very prominent Berks County family. In fact, the most prominent pediatrician in town during my childhood was a direct, linear descendant of Maj. Clymer. As I started researching, I found that there was much more information out there. Once I got a sense of what was available, I decided to tackle the project. It literally took me 12 years to research and write this book. It truly was a labor of love."

Although Wittenberg's affection for this subject matter is apparent, the book that resulted from it is a testament to his talent and integrity as a historian. At no point in the narrative does he allow his own bias to tarnish the historical accuracy of the story. Instead, Wittenberg channeled his fondness for the 6th Penn. into an extremely well-researched and -documented piece that will entertain and enlighten.

For more on Eric Wittenberg and Rush's Lancers, visit

About the Author: Eric J. Wittenberg is author of many acclaimed books on Civil War history, including "Gettysburg's Forgotten Cavalry Actions," "Battle of Monroe's Crossroads and the Civil War's Last Campaign" and "The Union Cavalry Comes of Age: Hartwood Church to Brandy Station." A native of Reading, Pa., this expert on cavalry has written more than 15 articles for national Civil War magazines. He is a business attorney in central Ohio.

MICHAEL AUBRECHT is a Civil War author and historian who lives in Spotsylvania County. For more information, visit his Web site at Send e-mail to his attention to gwoolf@freelance





Stealing The General: The Great Locomotive Chase and the First Medal of Honor by Russell S. Bonds
By Michael Aubrecht, Pinstripe Press
Date published: 4/16/2007

In 1927, film pioneer Buster Keaton released a silent masterpiece titled "The General" which went on to become one of the most celebrated movies of all time. In 1956, Walt Disney Pictures followed the success of this groundbreaking piece by releasing their own action-adventure version called "The Great Locomotive Chase." The script for both of these classics was based on a true story in which a Union spy named James J. Andrews was recruited to lead a band of raiders into the deep South, so that they could commandeer a rather remarkable locomotive, and use it to destroy a vital part of the Confederacy's railway system.

Unfortunately, things did not go as planned after the conductor of the train realized the nature of their mission and proceeded to launch a pursuit of heroic proportions. The film starred such noteworthy Western actors as Fess Parker, Slim Pickens and Harry Carey Jr. It was later nominated for an "Orange British Academy Film Award," which is the UK's version of the coveted "Oscar."

As with many of Hollywood earliest movies, Keaton's "The General" disappeared from the American consciousness following the invention of "talkies." Disney's "The Great Locomotive Chase" ran its course in theaters and then rode off into the sunset like so many of its co-stars. For the next fifty years, this wonderful piece of true American folklore remained a forgotten footnote, relegated to the occasional sidebar in Civil War picture books.

Thankfully in 2006, an in-house lawyer at the Coca-Cola Company named Russell S. Bonds reintroduced this neglected gem to the public with a wonderful book titled, "Stealing the General: The Great Locomotive Chase and the First Medal of Honor."

Much like its predecessor, "Stealing the General" focuses on two of the event's most prominent characters, Andrews, the Union leader, and William A. Fuller, the Southern train conductor. Both of these courageous men are presented in all of their glory as each races to outdo the other. However, more importantly, "Stealing the General" also fills in the gaps that followed, as the locomotive thieves were summarily hunted down and captured.

Eight, including Andrews, were tried and executed as spies. Miraculously, eight other participants managed to make a daring escape to freedom, including two who were assisted by a network of slaves and Union sympathizers. For their actions, President Abraham Lincoln later presented six of these Civil War "commandos" with the first Medal of Honor awards in American history.

Far above and beyond the film version, the plot of "Stealing the General" contains meticulously detailed perspectives of the individuals on both sides of the chase, describing their triumphs and tragedies before, during and after the mission. The suspense of their plight is without question, and Bond's talent for developing a well-written narrative makes this book a real page-turner.

I was taken aback by the audacity of the raiders' leader and the gravity of their task. The term "risky" does not even begin to describe their situation and as a reader, I actually found myself rooting for these bandits as the chase progressed. As the book continued, I also found myself equally enamored by their pursuers, whose tenacity defined the "never-surrender philosophy" of the South.

In retrospect, I understand now why this adventure was originally made into two critically acclaimed movies, as the story line requires no embellishment to be movie-worthy. It simply stands on its own merit as one of the most exciting events to come out of the War Between the States.

Proving that great stories never go out of style, Bond's book was nominated for the prestigious "Richard Barksdale Harwell Book Award" for the best Civil War book of the year, which it won in 2007. This award is most deserved as Bond's efforts in resurrecting the great locomotive chase have provided Civil War enthusiasts and novices alike with an inspirational story of man versus machine - versus man.

For more on Russell S. Bonds and "Stealing the General" visit

To order the book from Westholme Publishing:
Customer Service: 1-800-621-2736 (voice)
Customer Service: 1-800-621-8476 (facsimile)

MICHAEL AUBRECHT is a Civil War author and historian who lives in Spotsylvania County. For more information, visit his Web site at


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