April 28, 2008
Civil War St. Louis Reviews…
Guide to Missouri Confederate Units, 1861-1865 By James E. McGhee
Reviewed by G. E. Rule
It sucks mightily to lose a civil war, and in a host of ways. The obvious result, of course, is that the cause you were willing to spend your blood and treasure on is lost. Less obvious, but even longer lasting, are some of the ancillary consequences. For instance, you might have a little thing called “Reconstruction” if you lived in a state that the victors were kind enough to concede was officially (by their definition) “in rebellion”. What happened to you in a state that was not “official” in the victor’s eyes (see: A Minirant on the Number of Confederate States) was arguably even nastier (see: Oath of Loyalty). And aside from official consequences, one could read in local newspapers for years after of the sad and unofficial results of night riders thundering down a farm lane after dark to call out an ex-rebel to his final moments on a country porch in front of his wife and family.
Then, of course, is one of the hoariest truisms in all of historiography –“the victors write the history”. This means that learned gentlemen shall come behind your bleeding corpse and explain to generations yet unborn why your defeat was inevitable, justified, and really quite to the benefit of all, often with an air of dispassionate smugness that explicitly or implicitly gives the impression that they’d have done much better than the actual actors had history chosen them to land its sledgehammer of unhappiness upon.
But here’s another terribly important thing to consider about why the victors typically get to write the history on a civil war –in general, the victors have much, much better record keeping.
Certainly this was true about the losing side of the American Civil War as it played out in Missouri from the years 1861-1865. Driven from the state in the early days of the war, such bureaucracy as the Confederate government-in-exile that the Missourians had was harried, underfunded, and barely functional. Such recruiting as the Confederacy was able to do in Missouri was typically done under the noses of the Union forces who kinda-sorta controlled the state, more-or-less, for most of the war. Confederate recruiting efforts were ongoing for most of that period, though typically in identifiable waves. Add to this amazingly higgledy-piggledy situation the fact that often there were as many as four levels of pro-Confederate recruiting going on –that for official Confederate forces; those for the pro-Confederate Missouri State Guard; those for unofficial local pro-Confederate militias (these typically in the early days of the war – see Ab Grimes’ hilarious account of his and Mark Twain’s early experiences for an example); and those for the infamous pro-Confederate guerrilla groups such as those led by Bill Quantrill and William Anderson. Any way you look at it, trying to recreate even the basic records that good history writing requires in such a situation is obviously quite a challenge.
As we get in range of the sesquicentennial of the beginning of the American Civil War, a new book by James E. McGhee and the University of Arkansas Press addresses at least part of the problem –official Confederate units from Missouri.
First, a word about the University of Arkansas Press “Civil War in the West” series of which the current title is part. The word is a simple “Bravo”. As anyone reading these words can reliably be assumed to be a devotee of the Civil War in Missouri, we can not provide a stronger recommendation than the one we do for the University of Arkansas’ series.
As for the author, Jim McGhee, we must first admit a partiality. Jim is a friend of the site (see: First Missouri Confederate Brigade by James E. McGhee). But then Jim is a friend of anyone who toils seriously to shed illumination on the less well-lit corners of the civil war in Missouri (see: The Fight at Jackson Fairgrounds) and has been for more years than he might like to be reminded of (see: U.S. Grant and the Belmont Campaign by James E. McGhee).
At any rate, we cannot imagine anyone better qualified to have written Guide to Missouri Confederate Units, 1861-1865, and the book he has produced does not disappoint. Separated into three sections, one each for Artillery (20 batteries), Cavalry (26 regiments, 7 battalions, and 3 squadrons), and Infantry (12 regiments and 1 battalion), he has produced the definitive guide to official Confederate units from Missouri. Each unit receives a biographical sketch of its composition and career from its inception by one of the leading authorities of the war in Missouri. Just as lovely, if you are even half the geek that we are, is the bibliography of sources given for each unit’s history.
It’s not often that we feel a need to quote someone else’s opinion of a book we’re reviewing. But sometimes, someone else says it at least as well as you can say it yourself. In this case, we tip the cap to series editors Daniel Sutherland and T. Michael Parrish for the best thumbnail description of what McGhee has accomplished with this title: “. . . his expertise is evident on every page of this book. The scope of the work is startling, the depth of detail gratifying, its reliability undeniable, and the unit narratives highly readable”. You can’t ask for more than that from any history book, and while the cause of the Missouri Confederates is still lost, at least it has become a wee bit more possible for their history to be written accurately because of the efforts of James E. McGhee and the University of Arkansas press.