Book Reviews: Fall 2015

The Soldier in the Attic, Carolyn WilsonThe Soldier in the Attic
By Carolyn Wilson
Word Association Publishers, Tarentum, 2015
123 pages, 8 drawings, 1 map, bibliography
$16.95 paperback

A packet of letters in her late father’s attic led author Carolyn Wilson to write about the Civil War service of Lt. William Irwin of Allegheny City, who enlisted in Company G, 103rd Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment. Company G consisted of men recruited predominantly from Tarentum, Allegheny County, and Indiana County.

Wilson, who was not related to Lt. Irwin, relies on primary and secondary sources to annotate the letters disseminated throughout the book. Fortunately, a 1910 primary history of the regiment also exists. The letters, most written in 1862 but continuing until late 1864, are published as William wrote them, without any corrections. Wilson describes Lt. Irwin’s letters as “beautiful penmanship.”

In addition to the prominent Irwin family, we also learn about the Peterson “clan” of Tarentum and Lewis Peterson Sr., William Irwin’s grandfather. In the 1840s, Lewis was a key figure in the area’s vital salt industry and the “rock oil,” or petroleum [oil], recovered in salt deposits. Thanks to Wilson’s meticulous research, the reader is introduced to other 19th century families of Allegheny County.

Many of the letters home describe life in the camps and on the march. There are no descriptions of actual combat, not uncommon in soldier’s letters home. Wilson, however, provides the reader with sufficient background information regarding the campaigns that Lt. Irwin took part in. William would spend his nearly three years of service in the Eastern Theatre of Operations, serving first in the 1862 “Seven Days” Peninsula Campaign in Virginia. He later participated in the 1864 Union campaign in North Carolina that suffered a huge setback on April 20, 1864. Confederate forces attacking at Plymouth, N.C., surprised Federal troops, resulting in the capture of the 2,800-man Union garrison, including most of the 103rd Regiment. William Irwin endured ten months of captivity in Confederate prison camps at Columbia, S.C. and Wilmington, N.C., where he sent few letters home. The enlisted men of the 103rd suffered in the infamous Andersonville, Ga. prison camp, where 132 men of the regiment died. On Feb. 22, 1865, at Wilmington, most Union prisoners, including Lt. Irwin, would be released.

In conclusion, this reviewer found the writer, who professed to have been a Civil War neophyte, related her research trips and experiences as inimitable and personal, yet also in a way that readers will find informative.

Reviewed by Arthur B. Fox, M.A., instructor of World Geography, CCAC Allegheny. He is the author of three books: “Pittsburgh during the American Civil War, 1860-1865;” “Our Honored Dead, Allegheny County in the American Civil War;” and “Those Who Fought, Allegheny County, Pa. and the Gettysburg Campaign.”

Four Wheels and a Vision: Butler’s Automotive Inventions, 1905-1941 Compiled and written by Carlene Bouwman, Pat Collins, and Patti Jo LambertFour Wheels and a Vision: Butler’s Automotive Inventions, 1905-1941
Compiled and written by Carlene Bouwman, Pat Collins, and Patti Jo Lambert
Mechling Bookbindery, 2011
27 pp., color and b&w photos
$6 paperback

Butler County Historical Society’s abbreviated compilation of facts and photos traces 36 years of the golden age of automotive manufacture in the region.

Each short chapter discusses a different type of vehicle and provides some context (including prices and socioeconomic factors) about their creation. These all led up to the most well known invention from Butler, Pa., the Bantam Reconnaissance Car, later dubbed the Jeep. The longest and most detailed section of the book describes how Bantam’s Karl Probst came to design such a vehicle and help win the bid to build a prototype. The book can be used as a quick reference for Butler’s auto history and is a great starting place to learn more about the invention of the Jeep.

Reviewed by Liz Simpson, Assistant Editor and Assistant Registrar, Heinz History Center.

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