Jane Maher Biography of Broken Fortunes: Wilkie and Bob, Brothers of William, Henry, and Alice James.
Archon Books, 202 pages, $22.50

In 1863, at the age of seventeen, Robertson James and the rest of the Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Regiment of the Union Army were involved in a secret mission to construct an island made from sandbags off Charleston Harbor, on which they planned to mount a gun. The project took months, under the worst conditions possible; at no time were the soldiers given relief from heat, disease, hunger, vermin, dysentery, or exhaustion. Robertson later described the construction of the gun, which was nicknamed the “Swamp Angel,” as “a monotonous, joyless pursuit.” Once mounted, the gun collapsed after the first few discharges.

This incident is characteristic of the histories of Robertson James and his older brother, Garth Wilkinson James, both of whom, in their...

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