When it came time in the winter of 1860 to choose sides, most states had no problem. Abraham Lincoln's Illinois would stay in; Jefferson Davis' Mississippi would opt out. For Kentucky, a state of the geographical and political center, the choice was more difficult. It could claim the compromiser, Henry Clay, had given its electoral votes to the moderate John Bell in the election, but it had also given the nation Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis.

Kentucky chose to sit the fence. When the neutrality campaign fizzled, it made a hard choice: to stand with the Union. Kentuckians for whom that choice was unpalatable made a harder choice: to stand apart, with the Confederacy, outcasts -- "orphans" -- from home and hearth.

The history of those Kentuckians and the First Kentucky Brigade is captured in rich detail in William C. Davis' "The Orphan Brigade," a chronicle of heavy fighting, light rations, bad whiskey and ill fortune. "It is a hopeles cause," was the assessment of John C. Breckinridge -- one-time vice president of the United States and runnerup in the 1860 election to the sitting president of the remnants of that Union -- as he left to take command of the Brigade.

That assessment may have seemed unduly pessimistic in the winter of 1861. The Kentuckians, who had not yet seen battle, hunkered down to a Christmas feast of turkey and ham, pies and eggnog. A "sumptuous dinner," one trooper wrote. But from Valentine's Day 1862, when Breckinridge led the Brigade out of Kentucky, until its decimation outside Atlanta some 2 1/2 years later, it was the field hospitals, not the dinner pots, that were overflowing.

By April 1862, the Brigade was near starvation. One mess sustained itself on a meal of a single rabbit, puloined turnips, and "ash cake" -- cornmeal and water baked in the campfire ashes. "Our mess lived high that night," recalled the same trooper who had dined so well at Christmas.

There was no shortage of fighting. "General, I have a Kentucky brigade here," reported an Orphan colonel at Shiloh. "What shall I do with it?"

"Put it where the fighting is thickest," came the reply.

And why not? The Orphans had little political clout in Richmond. No Confederate president need stand for reelection in Kentucky. The Brigade could be used to plug the holes in the dike, and later in the sieve.

They were spared little: chewed up by Grant at Shiloh, chewed up by lice and mosquitoes enroute to Vicksburg, lacing near-undrinkable water of every color with vinegar to ward off dysentery, shunted from one end of the Confederacy to the other on creaking railroads, sun-scorched in Mississippi summer, and pelted by freezing rain and sleet in Tennessee winter, misused by Earl Van Dorn, abused by Braxton Bragg, and chewed up some more by Sherman in Georgia.

In romanticized accounts of the Civil War, the long-suffering Orphans would have shouldered their burden willingly, emerging bloodied but unbowed. Davis goes beyond those reassuring myths and finds a unit that could behave every bit as badly as it fought well.

Incidents of drunkenness, vandalism, straggling, theft, desertion and even mutiny littered the landscape; but in numbers that pale when compared with the Orphan's casualties: one-third dead and wounded at Shiloh, one-quarter in a suicidal hill assault at at Stones River; another third (including Gen. Benjamin Hardin Helm, West Point '51, brother-in-law of Abraham Lincoln) at Chickamauga, most of the rest in the campaign for Atlanta.

The reader relives this doomed effort as the troops lived it, for Davis has drawn from the diaries and journals of participants as well as the Brigade's official papers. The battles are rich with detail. With one exception. "With no maps and no knowledge of the terrain," the reader learns, "Breckinridge found the way difficult." So, too, the reader, equipped with a single map offering a bird's-eye view of Dixie. This absence of detailed maps is a regrettable omission in an otherwise informative, comprehensive and colorful account.