HUNTING LIEUTENANT CHADBOURNE by Jim W. Corder (University of Georgia Press: $21.95; 169 pp.) Second Lt. Theodore L. Chadbourne, of Eastport, Me., was killed in action on May 9, 1846, in the Battle of Resaca de la Palma, fighting Mexicans in a war that Teddy Roosevelt had yet to declare. He was 23. "Second Lieutenants die," writes Jim Corder. "That's what they do." And soon enough everyone forgets about them except the families. And then the families die. Corder, a TCU English professor, became obsessed with Chadbourne, wondering why a small fort in Texas had been named after someone nobody ever heard of. He vowed not to forget Chadbourne and, by extension, the legions of unremembered fallen soldiers of all the wars. It should have been a moving story. It is moving in parts, the parts devoted to Chadbourne and his mates; the letters home; the accounts of the battle. Ultimately, though, the story grinds against an earthwork too large to move: the author's ego.
Here is chutzpah. Soon after undertaking the search, Corder finds that a woman named Susan Miles had done just that: researched the lieutenant's life and death, contacted surviving family members, gathered letters, written a paper, even arranged to have Chadbourne's gear displayed in a small museum--including a white sword strap with a bullet hole precisely over the heart. Does this deter Corder? Hardly. Of Miles, he writes: "I don't know her. I know her. I will never know her." Writes it twice, in fact, only one of a bookful of tautologies meant to be sententious but only repetitious, and maddening. Repetitious. And maddening.
Still, Corder/Miles' accounts of life at West Point (where Chadbourne was a classmate of U.S. Grant), of soldiering in a day when gallantry was a given, of a bold and honest young officer are nearly enough to save the book. Nearly.