In many ways, John H. Black typified the thousands of volunteers who fought for the Union during the Civil War. Born in 1834 and raised on his family’s farm near Allegheny Township, Pennsylvania, Black taught school until he, like many Pennsylvanians, rushed to defend the Union after the attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861. He served with the Twelfth Pennsylvania Cavalry, one of the Union’s most unruly, maligned, and criticized units.Consistently outperformed early in the conflict, the Twelfth finally managed to salvage much of its reputation by the end of the war. Throughout his service, Black penned frequent and descriptive letters to his fiancée and later wife, Jennie Leighty Black. This welcome volume presents this complete correspondence for the first time, offering a surprisingly full record of the cavalryman’s service from 1862 to 1865 and an intimate portrait of a wartime romance.
In his letters, Black reveals his impassioned devotion to the cause, frequently expressing his disgust toward those who would not enlist and his frustration with friends who were not appropriately patriotic. Despite the Twelfth Pennsylvania’s somewhat checkered history, Black consistently praises both the regiment’s men and their service and demonstrates a strong camaraderie with his fellow soldiers. He offers detailed descriptions of the regiment’s vital operations in protecting Unionists and tracking down and combating guerrillas, in particular John Singleton Mosby and his partisan rangers, providing a rare first-person account of Union counterinsurgency tactics in the Lower Shenandoah Valley. In the midst of portraying heated and chaotic military operations, Black makes Jennie a prominent character in his war, illustrating the various ways in which the conflict altered or nurtured romantic relationships.
One of the few compilations of letters by a long-term Yankee cavalry member and the only such collection by a member of the Twelfth Pennsylvania, A Yankee Horseman in the Shenandoah Valley provides new insights into the brutal, confused guerrilla fighting that occurred in northwestern Virginia. Moreover, these letters make a significant contribution toward an emerging consensus that Yankee cavalry—often maligned and contrasted with their celebrated Confederate foes—became a superior fighting force as the war progressed.
David J. Coles, professor of history at Longwood University, is the associate editor of the Encyclopedia of Civil War, coauthor of Sons of Garibaldi in Blue and Gray, and coeditor of the Encyclopedia of the American Civil War.
Stephen D. Engle, professor of history at Florida Atlantic University, is the author of Yankee Dutchman: The Life of Franz Sigel, Don Carlos Buell: Most Promising of All, and Struggle for the Heartland: The Campaigns from Fort Henry to Corinth.