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Doctoral Student Juggles Duty, Family, Scholarship, & Publishing

by Carol Olechowski (October 10, 2003)

What does it take for someone to dedicate more than a third of his life to researching and writing about people who struggled a century before he was born to reunify the United States? It takes determination, discipline, and resourcefulness – three of the very same qualities exhibited by the soldiers whose experiences U.S. Army Major and UAlbany graduate student MARK W. JOHNSON recounts in his book That Body of Brave Men: The U.S. Regular Infantry and the Civil War in the West, published recently by Da Capo Press.

The 39-year-old West Point graduate’s work examines the battlefield experiences of the “members of the permanent, standing army of the United States” who comprised the 15th, 16th, 18th, and 19th U.S. Infantry Regiments. Resented, mistrusted, and perceived as “threatening to both the process of democratic government and the liberty of common citizens,” they were also disciplined, capable, and courageous enough to put their lives on the line to preserve their country, as the 784-page book reveals.

Now enrolled in UAlbany’s history Ph.D. program, Johnson developed an intense interest in the Civil War “almost by accident” when he was assigned to the 15th Infantry Regiment in the late 1980s. “I have always been curious about the history of the various units in which I have served,” recalls the third-generation Army officer, whose postings have included Germany; Panama; Southwest Asia; and the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War, where he served with the 101st Airborne Division. “I quickly discovered that there was virtually no readily available information about the 15th Infantry Regiment in the Civil War, or about any of the other Regular regiments that served in the war’s Western Theater,” which included Kentucky, West Virginia, and Tennessee.

Johnson set about addressing that omission. He pored over regimental records, diaries, letters, and other materials at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and at “a number of other historical repositories.” In all, he spent 14 years researching and writing That Body of Brave Men.

The book underscores that “being a soldier in the Civil War was difficult enough for anyone in uniform, but being a soldier in the Regular Army was even more so. Many 19th-century Americans believed professional military forces were more of a liability than an asset to the nation” – an attitude that “dated back to the founding of the republic and the resentment generated by the presence of the British army in colonial America.”

Military professionals also “became scapegoats for Federal defeats early in the war. And it did not help the Regular Army’s cause that about a quarter of the officer corps had rallied to the Southern cause or that the president of the Confederacy was a West Point-educated former regular officer,” observes Johnson.

To complicate matters, “regulars and state volunteers had differing notions about what it meant to be a soldier.” One misconception among young Union Army enlistees was that “to be a soldier required only heavy doses of enthusiasm and determination” rather than “discipline, training, and knowledge of all things military. It was not until later that most volunteers and regulars realized that winning the war required grim determination and adequate training and discipline.”

Johnson is well acquainted with these qualities: Aside from devoting a substantial portion of his life to researching and writing That Body of Brave Men, the author kept up a hectic pace of work and study. An Army ROTC instructor with the Albany program, which is based at Siena College but operates extension centers at UAlbany and RPI, Johnson teaches at all three centers. With Sergeant Chris Irwin, he oversees UAlbany’s “very strong program,” which has 60 participants.

In addition, he is “an outstanding student,” according to Visiting Professor of History Allen Ballard, who taught Johnson in a Spring 2003 Civil War Readings class. “Mark’s contributions were of a high order; his being in the class was practically like having a co-teacher in the course. He is also a fine writer. I was surprised that he was able to write his book while having a full-time job as an Army officer. It took enormous reserves of discipline and dedication to be able to finish such a work while working and studying,” Ballard adds.

Johnson admits to having help on the home front in achieving his aims. His wife, the former Elyse Howard (a 1989 UAlbany graduate with a B.S. in archeology and anthropology), “was very understanding and supportive. She often joked, though, that her biggest fear was that as soon as I finished this book, I was going to start another.” Married since 1997, the Johnsons have two children: Brittany, 5, and Spencer, 2. The family resides in Bennington, Vt.

While Johnson is not yet ready to pen another book, he is looking forward to “my next career” – as a college teacher or a military historian with the Department of the Army.


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