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NDG Book Review: ‘Unexpected Bravery’ is a seldom-seen side of the Civil War

By Terri Schlichenmeyer

You really want to help.

Another pair of hands is a good thing, right? You’re determined to pitch in, even when they tell you “no.” Even when they don’t know where to assign you. Even if the job is dangerous, you’re not sitting it out. As in the new book “Unexpected Bravery” by A.J. Schenkman, no way you’re not getting involved.

Back in 1865, when the population of the United States was around thirty-two million people, four million of them were “human beings owned as property.” This was a problem, so there was war in which “roughly six hundred thousand soldiers perished…” A surprising number of those soldiers never should’ve been on the battlefield: they were children too young for battle or they were women, for whom military service was “illegal.”

Young Johnny Clem, ran away at age ten to enlist in the 3rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. They may have tried to send him home, but Clem was undaunted: he instead joined with 22nd Michigan Infantry, and became a drummer. Officially, he became a soldier in 1863.

As a slave, Susie King Taylor learned to read and write and was quietly educated by a series of teachers because her grandmother saw her intelligence. In 1862, at age thirteen, Taylor was asked to teach freed African Americans living on an island just off the coast of Georgia. She taught children by day and adults at night, and she later took on nursing duties and cared for the wounded of the 33rd United States Colored Infantry Regiment.
Lyston and William Howe both joined with the Union when they were teens, first as drummers. Officials accused Cuban-born Don Mauricio Sanchez of being a Confederate spy; he wasn’t, but his teenage daughter, Lola, was. Fifteen-year-old Rashio Crane died in Andersonville Prison, a POW. Albert D.J. Cashier fought for three years in the 95th Illinois Volunteer Infantry but kept a secret for the rest of his life. And, says Schenkman, at least one unnamed woman died on the battlefield, fighting while pregnant.

Imagine any average pre-teen you know, maybe your child or grandchild. Now imagine him or her on the battlefield, guns blazing, cannons blasting, and you’ll understand what’ll sit just off to one side of your mind while you’re reading “Unexpected Bravery.”

Indeed, the stories that author A.J. Schenkman shares are relatable, in the sense that we all know brave women, and children the same age as the soldier-kids about which he writes. Yes, it’s jaw-dropping but let yourself be amazed, too, at the reasons for why these women and kids went to war.

Schenkman’s explanations are a boon for readers who are not fans of htextbook history; instead, he tells individual stories without a lot dates-and-battles info. You get enough to anchor each tale – and with what you’ll learn, that’s really enough.

And yet, it’s not. This book may send you looking for more, because it’s eye-opening and well-told. Civil War buffs and unique-story lovers need “Unexpected Bravery.” You can’t help but like it.

Historians looking for more will want to find “The Lost History of the Capitol” by Edward P. Moser (Lyons Press, $27.95) This sweeping, but very engrossing, book takes readers from 1790 and the founding of the capital city, through some of the landmark bills and decisions made in the Capitol, to last January and the riot that breached the building.

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