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Originally published Friday, January 4, 2013 at 5:01 AM

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A long, hard war for one Illinois regiment

Steve Raymond’s new book “In the Very Thickest of the Fight” tells the story of one volunteer regiment from Illinois in the Civil War and all that it experienced. Raymond will discuss his book Thursday at the Puget Sound Civil War Roundtable.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Steve Raymond

The author of “In the Very Thickest of the Fight” will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Thursday Jan. 10 at the monthly meeting of the Puget Sound Civil War Roundtable, China Harbor Restaurant, 2040 Westlake Ave. N., Seattle. Dinner at 7 p.m., program at 8. Dinner is $21 for adults, $10 for students. Reservations for dinner must be made at least 48 hours in advance by calling 206-524-4434.

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Researcher Terry Lehr admits she fell in love with Col. Carter Van Vleck after reading the letters he wrote during the Civil War.

That’s an easy feeling to have for the colonel, especially if you meet him through the pages of Steve Raymond’s book, “In the Very Thickest of the Fight: The Civil War Service of the 78th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment” (Globe Pequot Press, 379 pp., $18.95).

The history of the 78th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment relies on the letters, diaries and field reports from those who served in the almost three years that the unit marched and fought in the Civil War. In such a book, it is good to have a keen observer and decent writer at center stage.

Van Vleck fills that role for Raymond. The colonel’s letters to his wife are eloquent at times, often touched with humor and filled with details about the day-to-day life of the regiment as well as assessments of other leaders and battles.

When Van Vleck is on the page, the book is at its best. Without him, Raymond relies on writers who often restrict themselves to complaints of bad food, hunger, miles marched, inadequate clothing and shelter, and the weather — incessant rain, mud and cold except when it is unbearably hot and dusty.

The book is a remarkable demonstration of thorough research and what that can turn up in the way of primary documents from events that took place 150 years ago. Raymond is lucky he stumbled onto Lehr, a happenstance he says came through “an obscure Internet reference” listing her as working on a project to publish Van Vleck’s letters. Lehr and Raymond worked out an agreement with Van Vleck’s descendants on how the letters would be used, and Lehr’s book (“Emerging Leader: The Civil War Letters of Carter Van Vleck to His Wife Patty, 1862-1864,” published last spring) should be a fitting companion to Raymond’s.

Raymond, a former Seattle Times editor, is no slouch as a writer himself, stitching together this quilt of history with just the right touches — a brief statement tying together two writers’ views of the same event, for instance, but then some beautiful pieces of embroidery for emotional moments, especially one in particular that will break the heart of readers who have become lovers of Van Vleck.

Raymond, who is a member of the Civil War Trust and the Puget Sound Civil War Roundtable, has a particular interest in the 78th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. One of the regiment’s first sergeants was his great-grandfather.

The story flows with the unit’s activities, slow at first as the 78th is held in reserve and sorts out its leadership, with Van Vleck rising to take command. Men die from disease, and Raymond records those deaths day to day, just as they happened. As the regiment moves into many of the Civil War’s most important battles, the story becomes engrossing.

Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Kennesaw Mountain, Jonesboro, Bentonville, Sherman’s March to the Sea. Now men are killed in action, die later from wounds, are captured, desert and continue to fall to disease.

Nine-hundred-thirty-four men set out for war with the regiment in the fall of 1862. Thirty-two men joined later. When the 78th mustered out on June 7, 1865, there were 492.

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