Posted March 14, 2003

At Pittston Crossing

C. Burton Nelson

Helm Literary Publishing, 2002


Trade Paperback

329 pages

 Available from Helm Publishing


 Reviewed by G. E. Rule

Incident at Pittston Crossing is advertised as “a Civil War adventure novel”.  While the author is somewhat coy about when/where we are, it appears the field of battle is in southern Illinois in the summer of 1862.  A fictional engagement, the battle is brought on by a surprise raid of a southern army of ten thousand intent on sacking a lightly defended  Union supply depot, shattering public equanimity about the relative safety of the Northern states, and hauling huge amounts of military booty back to the Confederacy.

Pitched into the maw of this juggernaut is Captain Michael Ellison, USA, company commander of Company A of the 117th Illinois infantry.  Ellison is given a quickie promotion to Major, and he and his men are sent to die gloriously–but as slowly as possible—so as to buy time for the commanding general to get reinforcements for the defense of the depot.  It is estimated that a week will be required to insure the safety of the depot at Taylorville, but Ellison and his men will almost certainly be wiped out long before then.

Hurrying his troops to Pittston Crossing, a naturally strong defensive position astride the best road in the region, Ellison makes a series of brilliant decisions that will serve his men well in the days ahead. Ellison is authorized to co-opt any troops in the immediate region for the defense of Pittston Crossing, and the author cheats a bit on his behalf, providing one of the first sniper platoons in the U.S. Army camping nearby for Ellison to co-opt.  The local militia who will also add to his command are well-armed and well-trained, and even the civilian population has been trained to know what to do in case of an invasion.  Well-armed and trained militia was rare enough, but a trained civilian population was practically unheard of then & there.

Some other small units join Ellison, including what has to be one of the first African-American companies (explained as a “training unit”) in the U. S. Army in the Civil War. This is pushing the envelope of history pretty hard, as the actual dates of African American units would suggest that Burton is a few months early here. By its peak, Ellison’s little command of one hundred has grown to over six hundred; still outnumbered by better than 10-1 compared to their adversaries.

While Incident at Pittston Crossing is billed as an “adventure novel”, it reads more like a thought experiment.  One can imagine the author sitting down with the idea, “Hmm, what would happen if a small unit Civil War commander used modern infantry tactics instead of the line-‘em-up-and-bowl-‘em-over methods that were actually used during the war? How good could he do in a naturally strong defensive position?” Burton, a WWII Airborne veteran, answers “quite well indeed”.

Ellison is pedantic at times, but it is necessary for him to explain the features of this new way of fighting. Instead of just building fortifications and lining his men up behind them, Ellison has individual “Ellison rifle pits” for each man, with a “head log” with a firing port beneath it. This allows the men to fire while completely protected from small arms fire. Each has a smaller piece of wood to stuff in the firing port while he reloads, thus protecting him against a stray shot from the enemy during this time.

Interlocking fields of fire, hidden booby-traps, multiple weapons for each man to increase firepower, innovative use of artillery, intentional disinformation, counter-espionage, and above all the sniper unit play a role in Ellison’s defense of the “Notch” at Pittston Crossing. I was half expecting Burton to come up with an Air Force to complete Ellison’s combined arms tutorial before the campaign was over.

The author’s characterization of his actors is much richer on the Union side of the ball. Ellison himself is likable, and most of his officers are identifiable as individuals and not just stick figures. Major Thurman Harris (an “Old Army” retiree living in the area who is dragooned back into service by Ellison) is a particularly enjoyable crusty—and fearsomely competent—addition to the book. Burton’s Southern characters, on the other hand, are not drawn with any sympathy at all. The Confederate officers tend to be either stick figures, stereotypes, or both; not all that unusual for the “bad guys” in a novel of this kind. Skeeter Moss, a poor local fisherman of flexible morals and loyalties, who is just trying to survive in the path of the invasion—possibly at a small profit—was a well-drawn subplot. 

The language of these Civil War soldiers sounds a bit more modern than accurate, with mention of “all-weather roads”, “assets”, and military “red tape”.  This last, placed by the author in the mouth of Jefferson Davis, might just possibly be accurate. “Red tape” became well known after the Civil War; old soldiers traveling to Washington to prove their right to a pension found their service records bound with the stuff.  Possibly red tape was used at the War Department when Davis was Secretary of War in the ‘50’s, but it sounded odd. Ellison’s Union officers also have a fondness for puns—good, bad, and terrible—that matches my own experience with friends who have served in the Army much more recently; perhaps this tradition goes back further than I had suspected. At any rate, a little more 19th century English would have added to the verisimilitude of the book.  

“Thought experiment” or “adventure novel”, Incident at Pittston Crossing held my attention right to the end. Civil War buffs of Pro-Union proclivities and those who like military fiction in general, will probably enjoy this book.


©2003 G. E. Rule

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