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A discussion on ‘the greatest cost’ of the Civil War

By Staff | Nov 2, 2018

SHEPHERDSTOWN — “‘The greatest cost of the Civil War was its slaughter of young men,'” quoted West Chester University Assistant Professor of History James Scythes, at the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War on Friday evening.

Scythes spoke to a full room about his book, “‘This Will Make a Man of Me’: The Life and Letters of a Teenage Officer in the Civil War,” after spending the day teaching, driving from Pennsylvania to Shepherdstown and traipsing across Antietam Battlefield and Shepherdstown Battlefield.

“As we know, many young men filled the ranks of the Civil War’s armies,” Scythes said, before talking about the central character in his book, 17-year-old 2nd Lieutenant Thomas James Howell. “Tom is just one example of many young men whose lives were ended too early. His letters were really great — they were a pleasure to read.”

Scythes began writing his book, which is available online in hardback and paperback, in 2000. He completed his original book manuscript in 2007, before taking about seven years off of writing after the birth of his daughter. In 2014, Scythes returned to working on his book, which was published by Lehigh University Press in 2016.

According to Scythes, the book not only showcases 65 of Howell’s letters from the war, which Scythes carefully edited, but it also helps readers connect with the letters through photographs of Howell, his family and fellow soldiers.

Calling himself “the expert on the Howell family,” Scythes said Howell’s story was unique, because he was one of only a dozen commissioned 17-year-old officers in the Civil War. The struggles expressed in his letters reveal that his experience was uniquely different from those of older officers in the Civil War.

“Many teenagers got caught up in the patriotic fervor that swept the North. A small number of these youths were officers,” Scythes said, explaining Howell did not join the war because of his patriotic fervor alone.

“After his father died in 1859, he wanted to help support his mom and younger siblings,” Scythes said, mentioning Howell was one of 10 children. “With the pay, Howell was able to contribute significantly to his loved ones. And he believed joining the military was the best thing for him, because he grew up in a family with a rich military tradition.

“Tom believed it was his duty to enlist. He wrote in his first letter home, ‘this will make a man out of me,'” Scythes said. “I liked that the book used the war as a coming-of-age story for him.”

Right after he turned 17 in Jan. 1862, Howell applied for an open commission in Company One of the 3rd New Jersey Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Although he did not conceal his age, according to Scythes, Howell was approved and joined his company at Fort Worth in Feb. 1862.

Unfortunately, Howell’s story ended five months later on July 27, 1862 at the Battle of Gaines’s Mill, when he was shot in the torso by a Confederate bullet.