Fulton County Reads is a one-book, one-community project conceived by Librarian Jody Newton and Sue Clark, English teacher, of Rochester High School. It was inaugurated in February with A Stupendous Effort, my 1997 book about men from Fulton County and northern Indiana in the Civil War. Those who registered received the book to read followed by three nights of discussion that each attracted more than 50 people. My remarks at those discussions, edited for space limitations, are being presented in a series of columns, the second of which follows:

At last count, more than 51,000 books have been written about the Civil War. And that is equivalent to one a day for every day since the war ended nearly 141 years ago. So, why would anyone want to add another stone to such a mountain, hoping someone would find it?

I have read Civil War books for 50 years and more, acquired a library of 180 volumes, toured every major battlefield and in the end wondered if I ever could add a worthwhile examination of the war. 19 years ago I spent a week, with guidance, at the Antietam battlefield in Maryland and in the campaign leading up to the battle, which was the worst one-day fight of the war. When I sat down to write about it, though, I found my words to be nothing more than a regurgitation of those of others. I gave it up.

You will read in the book's preface how I happened upon the 87th Regiment, so I will not repeat that here. But let me assure you that you are not reading a book about the Civil War. We shall discuss the Civil War in greater detail later on. I can speak of it as long as others want me to. It is endlessly fascinating.

But I am not a historian of the war. I am only a writer with a specific story to tell about a part of that murderous, fratricidal war that by its result created the nation that we have become. It is a narrative account of what happened, on almost a daily basis, to the 945 men who formed the 87th Regiment in August of 1862, 16 months after the war had begun. They then went off to spend 34 months in the Union army. They all proved to be good fighters in battles and 300 of them came from Fulton County.

I wanted to live their war with them, for not many war books do that, and to take my reader along. I wanted to learn how they trained, marched, camped and lived in the open. How they ate their meals, felt about the war. How they endured a journey of 1,600 miles, walking nearly 1,400 miles of it while marching from Louisville to Atlanta, to Savannah and northward through the Carolinas to Washington. How they performed in their battles, how some died in them and what their lives were like when the war was over and they returned home.

Here's how the book describes these men:

"The men of the 87th were young, as are most of those who fight in wars, but not as young as those cocksure youths who volunteered with a rush of patriotic fervor in '61. The volunteers of mid-1862, by and large, were the community's more substantial citizens, having become soberly convinced of the nation's danger of disintegration and who were leaving wives, children and businesses to help thwart it. Many were articulate as well as literate, as we shall learn when they speak to us through their diaries, journals and letters. A majority of the 87th was right off the farms, to be sure, since fully one-third of all Northern farmers went into uniform."

The war always is in the background of A Stupendous Effort, for its progress is what drives the story. Some of you at times may be confused by the movement of the 87th into different brigades, divisions or armies and with different officers. Don't worry about keeping up with that if it bothers you. I wrote on two levels, you see, on one to keep the general readers interested and on the other to satisfy the war scholars of my understanding of troop organizations, movements and leadership.

Why did these young men, these Walnut Crackers as they came to be known, why did they volunteer for this war? Two million of them did on the Union side, only 50,000 of them drafted. Here is a part of how the book discusses this matter:

"The riddle of man's irresistible attraction to war stems from many sources: patriotism, boredom, a manifestation of one's courage, commitment to home, family and a way of life and, in the Civil War, a dedication to the abstract principle of national union.

"There are other reasons to consider, too.

"Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. survived a bullet through the neck at Antietam to become one of the U. S. Supreme Court's most eminent jurists. Speaking at a Memorial Day address in 1884, Holmes explained to his audience that he and his fellow Civil War veterans 'shared the incommunicable experience of war. We have felt, we still feel, the passion of life to its top. Our hearts were touched by fire.' Justice Holmes' eloquence brings us close to the core of the question. A powerful motivation must have been, in that popular phrase of the day, the chance 'to see the elephant,' to live life's most personal adventure, to have war's incommunicable experience.

"There is a less romantic, but perhaps more realistic, view of why Civil War soldiers enlisted in such numbers. Tens of thousands of men in the 1860s were filled with a pent-up emotional energy, almost animalistic in nature, that could find no outlet. Their America was a troubled land and did not offer the boundless opportunities that later came to be identified with it. Only in the war did such men see their chance for fulfillment. For many of the men this yearning for fulfillment was driven in large measure by its companion, ambition. If one could attain significant personal achievement during this great national crisis, unlimited postwar prominence and success might follow."

In writing my book, I did not want to send the men of the 87th Indiana Infantry off to the battlefields without my readers and myself understanding something about who they were, how they lived, what mid-19th century life was like in this corner of Indiana. So the book becomes in part a social history as well as a tale of men at war. In chapter three, The Life They Left Behind, you will learn about that.

Next week: Describing the life they left behind.