Book Review - Through Many Dangers
Reformed Free Publishing Association
The following review was written by Dr. Robert P. Swierenga, Research Professor, A. C. Van Raalte Institute, Hope College, and Professor of History Emeritus, Kent State University, on the book Through Many Dangers Books 1 and 2, by P.M. Kuiper, illustrated by Paula Barone (Jenison, MI: Reformed Free Publishing, 2021). This review was originally published in the February 1, 2024 issue of the Standard Bearer.
The Civil War never ceases to fascinate Americans. This gem of a book tells the many dangers faced by the “Holland Rangers” of Company I of the 25th Michigan Volunteer Infantry, a unit of young men from Rev. Van Raalte’s Holland Kolonie who fought for three years under the able Colonel Orlando Moore and Lieutenant Martin De Boe.
To give the story flesh and blood, author P. M. Kuiper used the techniques of historical fiction to describe the actual experiences of the Dutch boys, more than one hundred in number. In the book, four Kolonie men make the ultimate sacrifice, which was a lower proportion than casualties suffered by the entire 25th Michigan company.
The main character is Harm van Wyk, joined by friends Ted Vogel, Kees De Groot, Gerrit Bol, Howard Tillema, and Frank De Windt. (A sub-plot is the growing romance between Harm and Howard’s sister, Sarah Tillema, who prays for their safe return.) All are members of Rev. Albertus Van Raalte’s church, who bled “Union blue” and pleaded with God for their safekeeping every Sunday in worship. The Dominie all but recruited the first eighty-two volunteers in a rally, including his sons, Ben and Dirk, which pleased him and dismayed his wife and, indeed, every mother.
In Kuiper’s book, these God-fearing young men pray their way through the trying hours, encourage one another, practice good Dutch cleanliness, drink only coffee to avoid dysentery, and have a designated cooking crew who barter and scrounge for nutritious ingredients. These practices cut down on death from diseases that felled many soldiers, although several contract typhoid fever.
Along their travels, the Kolonie boys also learn to talk about their faith. While marching for days or preparing for battle, they sing Dutch Psalms and recall Scripture passages, catechism lessons, and the Dominie’s sermons, all of which take on new meaning. They worship several times in southern Presbyterian churches, and befriend other Union soldiers, notably the Lutheran bugler, Spencer Grey, who as a pianist and connoisseur of classical music tempts Kees and Ted with “worldly amusements.” They also try unsuccessfully to evangelize the hillbilly drummer Clay Fowler and Charlie Markey, a thorn in the flesh. The Holland boys once discuss common grace, and they admit their hypocrisy for gambling at cards, attending the theater, and “foraging” (stealing a pig, taking fence rails for firewood, a lady’s jewel piece, etc. The jewelry heist smites the thief's conscience to the point that he returns it behind enemy lines at risk of his life).
These immigrant boys from the Michigan frontier travel over large swaths of the south, experience death up close, meet government officials at the Capital, and face slavery for the first time. War changes and matures them, making them ready for lives as humble servants of God.
A summary of the book is as follows:
The story begins with the decision to go. Van Wyke enlisted against the wishes of his father and after two years he symbolically capitalized the “v” in Van in his letters to signify to the family that he was no longer a Dutch immigrant but an American citizen. The recruits marched to Kalamazoo, where Commander Moore drilled them daily to produce a fighting force. But war had to wait for months in Louisville, as the men were assigned “white glove,” ceremonial duties with precision and polish.
When they faced their first battle in July 1863, after a full year under arms, they were ready. The enemy was the feared General John Hunt Morgan’s Raiders at Tebbs Bend, KY. Col. Moore insisted that his men dig deep trenches and bulwarks whenever they bivouacked, fight frontier style, and carry deadly English-made Enfield muzzle-loaders rather than American-made Springfield rifles. They were taught to reload and fire three times per minute. Thanks to this training, they defeated the much larger, battle-hardened enemy. One Dutch boy is wounded but recovers in hospital and rejoins the company. On Christmas day 1863, in a battle defending a rail bridge at Munfordville, KY, another Hollander becomes the first to die. After the battle, those surviving had free time to explore a vast cave, presumably Mammoth Cave.
From Kentucky, Company I marched two hundred miles east over the Cumberland Mountains to Knoxville, fighting skirmishes along the way, before taking Ohio River steamships and then training to join General John Sherman’s famed march through Atlanta, fighting almost daily. More men from the Kolonie are killed. Harm kills a rebel no older than himself and feels sick at heart. War, as Kuiper details, is hellish.
In the fight at Rocky Ridge, GA, a close friend of Harm dies in battle. After the fall of Atlanta, the Holland boys were assigned to General John Bell Hood’s army and returned to Tennessee to fight at Franklin and Nashville. Then they were sent east again on Ohio River steamships and trains to Washington, DC., where they spent a cold January in warm quarters and even had time to take in a play at Ford’s Theater, the site of Lincoln’s later assassination.
After Atlanta, the company traveled by steamboat via the Chesapeake Bay to North Carolina to join Union troops in the battle of Fort Anderson, where they freed Union prisoners in the infamous Confederate prison camp at Andersonville. Mercifully, the war ended in June 1865 and the Holland boys were sent home to a huge celebration led by Rev. Van Raalte. Most saved their enlistment bonus and monthly pay, rather than waste it on “wine, women and song,” which gave them a fat nest egg after the war.
Author P.M. Kuiper mastered historical accounts of the war so thoroughly that the novel comes close to being actual history. There are even a few times the author steps out of fiction into actual history. For example, in one battle scene, we are told that “Ben van Raalte, oldest son of Rev. van Raalte, had crept back to the battlefield, retrieved the flag, and returned it to camp.” (Ben’s younger brother Dirk lost his arm to a musket ball, but this is left unmentioned.) Appendices include an expansive bibliography, a definition of military terms, and a monthly timeline that parallels the encounters of Company I with the greater war. Actual letters penned from the battlefield to family and friends back home provide apt quotes for the fictional dialogue. Harm Van Wyke’s pencil sketches, actually by the skilled hand of Paula Barone, illustrate and enhance the storyline. This is a Civil War story that Christian readers will not want to miss.
Robert P. Swierenga came to the Van Raalte Institute at Hope College as the A.C. Van Raalte Research Professor in June 1996. He was also an adjunct professor in the Hope College Department of History. His role, and that of the institute, is to keep alive Dutch Reformed history and heritage, as well as the history of the college and community in which we are placed. You can learn more about Dr. Swierenga's work and find a list of his publications on his Hope College faculty page here.
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