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Prairie Boys Go to War

Prairie Boys Go to War

The Fifth Illinois Cavalry, 1861-1865

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Rhonda M. Kohl


Hardcover (Other formats: E-book)
328 pages, 6 x 9, 22 illustrations


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About the Book

Cavalry units from Midwestern states remain largely absent from Civil War literature, and what little has been written largely overlooks the individual men who served. The Fifth Illinois Cavalry has thus remained obscure despite participating in some of the most important campaigns in Arkansas and Mississippi. In this pioneering examination of that understudied regiment, Rhonda M. Kohl offers the only modern, comprehensive analysis of a southern Illinois regiment during the Civil War and combines well-documented military history with a cultural analysis of the men who served in the Fifth Illinois.

The regiment’s history unfolds around major events in the Western Theater from 1861 to September 1865, including campaigns at Helena, Vicksburg, Jackson, and Meridian, as well as numerous little-known skirmishes. Although they were led almost exclusively by Northern-born Republicans, the majority of the soldiers in the Fifth Illinois remained Democrats. As Kohl demonstrates, politics, economics, education, social values, and racism separated the line officers from the common soldiers, and the internal friction caused by these cultural disparities led to poor leadership, low morale, disciplinary problems, and rampant alcoholism.  

The narrative pulls the Fifth Illinois out of historical oblivion, elucidating the highs and lows of the soldiers’ service as well as their changing attitudes toward war goals, religion, liberty, commanding generals, Copperheads, and alcoholism.   By reconstructing the cultural context of Fifth Illinois soldiers, Prairie Boys Go to War reveals how social and economic traditions can shape the wartime experience.



Rhonda M. Kohl is a historian and writer in Jeffersonville, Indiana. Her articles have appeared in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Civil War History,and Illinois Historical Journal.


"Prairie Boys Go to War lives up to its title, for it reveals in detail the "daily life of the soldiers, who dealt with the isolation, loneliness, and the tedi­um of camp life [and also] military incompetence, drunken officers, useless surgeons, and an army that by all appearances cared little whether a sol­dier lived or died" (xii).... Kohl provides some fascinating statistics on the lives of this fractious group of individuals who were held together, at times it seemed, only by their uniform and the shared hardships of a soldier's life....The men spent  much of their  time on  garrison  duty, patrolling, small-unit actions,  and  what  we  would  now  call counter-insurgency  operations. Indeed, that might constitute the real gem of Kohl's meticulous account of this particular unit from its members' the very first day of enlistment to their mustering out." L. Bao Bui, Middle West Review

“Rhonda M. Kohl’s The Prairie Boys Go to War: The Fifth Illinois Cavalry, 1861-1865… serves as a guide for how regimental histories should be written. Succeeding in her endeavor to write a well-rounded regimental history, Kohl captures not only the various campaigns and skirmishes related to the Fifth Illinois Cavalry, but also the soldiers’ struggles with alcoholism, disease, and starvation as well as their thoughts and opinions regarding issues such as secession, emancipation, race, Copperheads, and the Lincoln administration… Readers of Kohl’s work will gain a real understanding of the men that served in the Fifth, in addition to obtaining a greater analysis of Federal soldiers overall…Political, social, or cultural historians of the Civil War or U.S. history during the nineteenth century would benefit from reading The Prairie Boys Go to War. Carl Creason, H-Net Online.

“Students of history… will find significant value in her argument and the rich stories she tells about the soldiers' military achievements and their encounters with African Americans, southern women, and Copperheads. Through an intense study of the Fifth Illinois Cavalry's military exploits and struggles, Kohl effectively convinces readers of the regiment's importance in the war. Her cultural analysis is a refreshing departure from standard regimental histories and an interesting book that is well researched and well written.” Melissa Farah Young,University of Alabama 

“As a military history illuminating the contributions of one regiment to a much larger war effort, Kohl's narrative is admirably successful…For readers wanting to experience the soldiers' lives both on and off the battlefield or to explore the cavalry's service in the western theater, Kohl's boots-on-the-ground perspective is an exceptional window into their war.” Jason Miller, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society.

"Rhonda M. Kohl's regimental history of the Fifth Illinois Cavalry tells a rich and complex story service and provides a detailed look at the underexamined experience of Union cavalry in the western theater. This is a well-researched and accessible book that should appeal to those interested in military matters as well as the social history of the volunteer military experience." Thomas Bahde, The Journal of Southern History.

"Kohl's The Prairie Boys Go to War: The Fifth Illinois Cavalry, 1861-1865 well worthy of attention... Kohl does an excellent job of documenting these more obscure military happenings in Arkansas and Mississippi. The Prairie Boys Go to War does in excellent fashion what so many Civil War regimental histories continue to do poorly, namely strike a satisfactory balance between a detailed military record of a unit's service and a critical exploration of the societal values brought to it by those that fill its ranks. In addition to pleasing demanding students in those two areas, the book's contributions to Civil War medical history, occupation studies, and guerrilla warfare are also significant. Add to that the overall scarcity of modern treatments of western cavalry units serving in the Union army, and we really have something of award worthy mention in Rhonda Kohl's study." Andrew Wagonoffer

“Looking at the common man, the common soldier, and their interactions with the union army, "The Prairie Boys Go to War" does well in analyzing the people of Illinois and their contributions to the civil war, highly recommended.” James A. Cox, editor in chief The Midwest Book Review

"This book is well documented and well written. It should be in the library of every serious student of the Union cavalry in the Civil War."—Journal of Illinois History

“With a firmness of purpose worthy of that demonstrated by the Prairie Boys, Rhonda Kohl has chronicled the service and actions of the Fifth Illinois Cavalry with an intimacy seldom woven into modern-day regimental histories.   With passion and skill cultivated through ten years of diligent research, she examines the complex relationships among the officers and men—individuals who were of disparate cultural and social backgrounds, and traces the development of their cohesiveness as a unit and captures its identity. In the process she has also produced a good history of the war in the lower Mississippi River valley. So mount up for an exciting ride.”—Terrence J. Winschel, author of Triumph & Defeat: The Vicksburg Campaign, volumes one and two

"The Prairie Boys Go to War presents the reader with a compelling combination of the military history of the Fifth Illinois Cavalry regiment in the Civil War with the intriguing story of its officers and men as they fought and survived under strenuous conditions in the states of Arkansas and Mississippi.   Kohl skillfully uses soldiers’ diaries, memoirs, and letters to graphically tell the story of their lives and experiences as part of the ‘Bloody Fifth,’ and presents a rare look at a Union cavalry regiment in the Western Theater and the Fifth’s part in the Union struggles to contain Confederate guerrilla activity.” —Jim Swan, author of Chicago’s Irish Legion: The 90th Illinois Volunteers in the Civil War 

“A first-rate history of a Union cavalry regiment in the West that goes far beyond the standard narrative of miles marched and battles fought. Rhonda Kohl provides a richly detailed account of civilians in uniform beset by uncertain leadership and fractious political divisions amidst a sea of hostile Confederates. Few regimental histories have as much to say about the experiences of the men who served or say it as well.”—William L. Shea, author of Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign

“Rhonda Kohl offers a vivid sense of the daily lives of Union soldiers at war in Arkansas and Mississippi. We meet them not only as fighting men but as Republicans and Democrats, poachers and pilferers, grassroots emancipators and intramural infighters, loving husbands and disease-ridden invalids. The men of southern Illinois were known as “Egyptians,” and the plagues they encountered in the Trans-Mississippi—whether pestilence, high water, insects, extreme heat and bitter cold, or guerrilla armies—were indeed worthy of the Egypt of Moses’s day. Kohl shows us the real war, and it’s not one anybody will ever want to reenact.”—Patrick G. Williams, editor of Arkansas Historical Quarterl