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The Bonds of War

The Bonds of War

A Story of Immigrants and Esprit de Corps in Company C, 96th Illinois Volunteer Infantry

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Diana L. Dretske


E-book (Other formats: Paperback)
23 illustrations

Engaging the Civil War


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Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Supplemental Materials



Interview with Diana Dretske on the ECW YouTube page and as a podcast

About the Book

The bond of citizenship earned during the Civil War
When curator Diana L. Dretske discovered that the five long-gone Union soldiers in a treasured photograph in the Bess Bower Dunn Museum were not fully identified, it compelled her into a project of recovery and reinterpretation. Utilizing an impressive array of local and national archives, as well as private papers, the author’s microhistorical approach records events that often go unnoticed, such as a farmer enlisting in the middle of a crop field, a sister searching her brother’s face for signs of war, and an immigrant dying in an effort to become a good American citizen.
This book, the most intensive examination of the 96th Illinois Volunteer Infantry since the regiment’s history was published in 1887 centers on immigrants from the British Isles who wished to be citizens of a country at war with itself. Far removed from their native homelands, they found new promise in rural Illinois. These men, neighbors along the quiet Stateline Road in Lake County, decide to join the fighting at its most dangerous hour. The bonds of war become then the bonds of their new national identity.
The Bonds of War uncovers the common soldier from the cataclysm that is the American Civil War by offering a collective biography of five soldiers of the 96th in the Western Theater. The human drama of their lives unfolds before the reader on battlefields such as Chickamauga and within the high pine stockades of Andersonville. Their lives argue that those who seem to matter least in military history are the very ones who can tell us the most about the experience of war and the reasons for remembering.


Diana L. Dretske, curator and Lake County historian at the Bess Bower Dunn Museum of Lake County, has explored, for more than thirty years, the history of northeastern Illinois through her research, presentations, and blog. Her books include Lake County, Illinois: An Illustrated History and Views of America: Fort Sheridan. In 2012 the Illinois State Historical Society recognized her with a lifetime achievement award for outstanding contributions in promoting, preserving, and commemorating Illinois history.


"[This] book makes a number of major contributions to our understanding of immigration and the Civil War. Despite the relatively large number of immigrants who served in the U.S. Army during the Civil War, there has still been relatively little scholarship about immigrant soldiers and their experiences. There has been very little about British immigrants in particular, making this study especially valuable. The book also furthers our understanding of the daily lived experience of immigrants in the military. Delving so deeply into the experiences of just a few people allows Dretske to bring them to life, returning a human face to a field that can often become dominated by statistics and demonstrating how a study with a local-history focus can illuminate national-level issues."—Kristen Anderson, The Annals of Iowa

"Dretske’s research in 'microhistorical' materials is impressive in providing social context for these soldiers’ service."—Timothy Roberts, H-Net

“In this intriguing collective biography of five immigrant men, Diana L. Dretske sheds important light on immigrant soldiers in the Civil War and on the Western Theater of the war, two aspects of the Civil War that are traditionally neglected. Lincoln referred to America as ‘the last best hope of earth,’ and the stories of the five men included herein confirm that they understood that better than many of their native-born fellow soldiers. Their story is well told, making for a very rewarding and edifying read.”—Jason H. Silverman, author of Lincoln and the Immigrant and When America Welcomed Immigrants
“In addition to providing a compelling and revealing account of the hardships endured on and off the battlefield, Diana L. Dretske draws from recent scholarship on the soldier and immigrant experience to help readers understand how the stories of these men reflected larger dynamics that shaped and were shaped by America’s bloodiest war. Theirs is an important story and one that The Bonds of War tells well.”—Ethan S. Rafuse, author of McClellan's War: The Failure of Moderation in the Struggle for the Union
“Immigrant and minority studies are becoming commonplace in today’s ‘New Military History,’ but rarely do we get such a provocative story as told in The Bonds of War. Dretske has done us all a service by tracing the history of a photograph of five friends who went off to war together. The result is more than a history of their regiment or even of the five men in the photograph—it is a fascinating walk through the tough years of war with men who almost become personal acquaintances.”—Timothy B. Smith, author of Shiloh: Conquer or Perish and The Real Horse Soldiers: Benjamin Grierson’s Epic 1863 Civil War Raid through Mississippi
"Dretske’s excellent collective biography of five immigrant soldiers is a valuable addition to our understanding of why recently arrived migrants fought for the Union. Though motivated in part by a sense of gratitude to their new country, this book highlights the importance of local communities, and the relationships that immigrants formed there, in encouraging them to participate in America’s bloodiest war.”—David T. Gleeson, author of The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America 

“[This books] stands as an excellent example of both a microhistory of five friends and neighbors who enlisted and served together in the 96th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, and a social-military history of the unit itself.”—Ryan Keating, Civil War Book Review