Thomas W. Cutrer. Theater of a Separate War: The Civil War West of the Mississippi River, 1861-1865. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017. 608 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-3156-1.
M. Jane Johansson, ed. Albert C. Ellithorpe, the First Indian Home Guards, and the Civil War on the Trans-Mississippi Frontier. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2016. 280 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8071-6358-0.
Reviewed by Evan C. Rothera (Penn State University)
Published on H-War (May, 2018)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
Thomas W. Cutrer and M. Jane Johansson both argue that of the three theaters of the US Civil War—astern, western, and rans-Mississippi—the trans-Mississippi receives the least attention. Cutrer asserts that the Trans-Mississippi “remains to a remarkable degree unknown and underappreciated” and that it “languishes in the backwaters of Civil War historiography” (p. xi). Johansson comments, “more than 150 years after the conflict, there is still a regrettable level of ignorance about the war west of the Mississippi River” (p. xiii). Although most students of the conflict would agree with these remarks, many see no problem with minimizing or ignoring this theater. Cutrer and Johansson are part of an ever-growing group of historians who are trying to redirect attention to what has long been considered a peripheral region.
Cutrer’s volume offers an “analytical military narrative” (p. xii) of the war in the trans-Mississippi. He covers the period 1861–65 and provides an overview of how the war unfolded across a massive geographical region: Kansas, Missouri, Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, New Mexico, Arizona, Indian Territory, and, to a limited extent, Colorado, California, and the Dakotas. He includes some discussion of social, political, and economic history, but his primary goal is to outline the campaigns in order to “establish the foundation and build the framework for future scholars” (p. xii). He likens his objective to that of another volume in the University of North Carolina Press’s Littlefield History of the Civil War Era: Earl J. Hess’s The Civil War in the West. Johansson, on the other hand, has a narrower focus. She analyzes the First Indian Home Guards, a regiment of Cherokee, Seminole, and African American soldiers and white commissioned officers. Her focus is their intriguing commander, Albert Chapman Ellithorpe. Cutrer’s overview of the region and Johansson’s more focused analysis of Ellithorpe, demonstrate the richness of the Trans-Mississippi and the potential it has for recasting old questions about the Civil War.
Although many people have found the trans-Mississippi distant and obscure, Cutrer considers it “an area of tremendous potential significance” (p. 1). That said, the rebel high command never seemed to have a full appreciation of the theater’s potential. While Union officers coordinated their operations, the rebel government’s lack of attention and guidance often doomed rebel armies to defeat. With considerable justice, he labels the rebel government’s vision myopic. Furthermore, according to Cutrer, the war in this theater came to a virtual end by summer 1864. This is a problematic statement, given Sterling Price’s invasion of Missouri in late 1864 and the threat Maximilian posed in Mexico. Nevertheless, both sides shifted troops to the east. Perhaps the trans-Mississippi had, by that point, lost its potential significance. Whatever the case, Cutrer discusses military and logistical operations in a generally chronological fashion. Specialists will likely be familiar with much of this information, but his attention to background and detail will help a non-academic audience.
Cutrer begins with secession and then considers Kansas, Missouri, and Indian Territory. Here he skillfully engages with recent scholarship discussing Native Americans and the Civil War. He makes a forceful argument that “Indian Territory was of strategic military significance” to both sides (p. 69). Union and rebel sentiment existed among Native Americans, which resulted in bitter intertribal tensions. Warfare, moreover, devastated Indian Territory, as well as other portions of the trans-Mississippi. In subsequent analysis of the struggle for the Southwest, he draws on work by Don Frazier, Jerry Thompson, and Don Alberts and concludes that the New Mexican campaign was a “debacle” (p. 115). Although Cutrer devotes a chapter to the war against indigenous people in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and the Dakotas, he could have spent more time on this subject and developed his analysis of the punitive campaigns against Native Americans. Cutrer devotes a substantial amount of attention to Texas. Furthermore, he covers, in extensive detail, the occupation of Louisiana and the campaigns of Nathaniel P. Banks. Sterling Price’s 1864 raid serves as the climax of the book. Following Price’s defeat, “the war in the trans-Mississippi came to a virtual halt” (p. 421). As the district became “more of a backwater,” both sides shifted troops east (p. 421). He concludes, “the Civil War was neither won nor lost west of the Mississippi River” (p. 443). However, after making this statement, he observes that the Civil War in this region shaped westward expansion and conquest in the postbellum United States.
Cutrer’s book reminds readers why the architects of the Lost Cause did not pay any attention to the trans-Mississippi. While the rebels achieved several successes, most of the time they failed, often due to incompetence and sometimes to outright idiocy. One of the more idiotic episodes occurred when Lucius Walker and John S. Marmaduke fought a duel (Marmaduke killed Walker) as General Frederick Steele’s army advanced on Little Rock. Furthermore, one cannot help but appreciate Cutrer’s pungent assessments of various rebel generals. Gideon Pillow was “arguably the worst commander in either army” (p. 42). John Selden Roane “proved wholly unfit for military command” (p. 134). The selection of Theophilus H. Holmes as departmental commander was a “poor choice” (p. 139). Hamilton P. Bee “was not, perhaps the most propitious of choices to command the rebel cavalry” (p. 397). This analysis brings to mind the famous assertion by Albert Castel that “by 1863 the Trans-Mississippi had become the junkyard of the Confederate Army.” Although scholars have challenged this idea, Cutrer’s catalogue of miserable rebel failures suggests Castel’s wry analysis was correct.
Where Cutrer provides a sweeping overview of the theater, M. Jane Johansson analyzes the First Indian Home Guards and the intriguing Lieutenant Albert Chapman Ellithorpe. In an army composed of white regiments, or black regiments with white officers, this regiment, which had white officers, Creek and Seminole Indian soldiers, and African American soldiers, proved unique because it was a rare example of a triracial regiment. Ellithorpe himself was a fascinating character. Born in St. Albans, Vermont, the fourteen-year-old Ellithorpe decided to seek his fortune in Chicago. Once there, he became involved in several business ventures, spent time in the West, and worked as a journalist. Ellithorpe contributed time and money to raising a cavalry regiment, the Thirteenth Illinois, and expected to receive a commission as lieutenant colonel or major. When this did not happen, Ellithorpe and the colonel of the regiment got into a shouting match, and then a brawl, in Chicago’s Tremont House. While this is not a new point, Johansson deftly illustrates how the politics of command and promotion could become incredibly nasty very quickly.
Although he did not serve in the Thirteenth Illinois, Ellithorpe became a first lieutenant in the First Indian Home Guards. Johansson’s brief background about the war in Indian Territory meshes nicely with Cutrer’s analysis. The organization of the regiment occurred in the spring of 1862. Union officers began planning an expedition into Indian Territory and received permission from the federal government to organize the First and Second Indian Home Guards. Interestingly, unlike African American soldiers, Native American soldiers received the same pay and benefits as white soldiers. The expedition failed due to challenging environmental conditions such as “drought and hot weather, burned-up grassland, and limited water supplies” (p. 22). Scholars have offered detailed analysis of how white soldiers and officers felt about African American soldiers. Johansson attempts to do the same with Ellithorpe and the Native American soldiers. As she notes, “he never directly wrote of his attitudes toward Indians, but he certainly felt that the more ‘civilized’ among them were much like white men, an attitude rather unusual for a white man to hold at that time” (p. xiv). Furthermore, in letters, newspaper articles, and his diary, Ellithorpe praised the soldiers under his command. In other words, in a society that very often supported extermination of Native Americans, Ellithorpe followed a different path.
Some discussion of Johansson’s method is in order. Throughout the book, she combines lengthy chapter introductions with transcribed primary sources. She utilizes entries from Ellithrope’s diary, correspondence, government reports, and the anonymous articles he authored for newspapers (often signed as “Creek,” “Cherokee,” or “Seminole”). This approach, which is reminiscent of a life-and-times biography complete with excerpts from letters and speeches, allows readers to see his unfiltered words and provides a chance to witness how his ideas evolved from his diary to his newspaper articles.
Johansson employs Ellithorpe to discuss larger questions. The First Indian Home Guards spent much of their time in northwestern Arkansas, a region well suited to guerrilla warfare. He frequently complained, “bushwhackers are plenty” and decried “this cowardly mode of warfare” (p. 47). As in other locations, Ellithorpe and his men hanged captured guerrillas from trees as a warning to other marauders. Johansson’s useful transcription of Ellithorpe’s diary also allows the reader to see his scathing, albeit humorous, denunciations of two “Arkansas She Rebels” as “regular snuff-lickers, smokers & tobacco chewers” whose “principal occupation is licking snuff, chewing, smoking, Eating hog & hominy & raising greasy squalling, sallow babies of a very inferior quality” (p. 59).
The Battle of Prairie Grove proved to be an important moment for Ellithorpe and the First Indian Home Guards. To be fair, Johansson might have provided more information about the battle itself. However, her analysis of the outcome matches Cutrer’s, who contends that the battle “decided the fate of Missouri and Kansas” (p. 150). Ellithorpe himself commented, in his journal, “the future history of this war will give it [the Battle of Prairie Grove] a place upon its pages” (p. 77). He also noted, in an article for the Chicago Evening Journal, “the ‘Battle of Prairie Grove’ will be long remembered by the people of the West, and it will fill a conspicuous place in the future history of this cruel and unholy war” (p. 86). Nevertheless, many scholars have only grudgingly recognized the significance of the battle. In many respects, the work of William L. Shea notwithstanding, it remains unknown.
In the spring of 1863, Ellithorpe began to recruit for the Fifth Indian Home Guards. However, the new regiment was never organized and he was discharged on August 29, 1863. Johansson follows Ellithorpe after he returned to Chicago, where he lost a race for alderman, became a real estate agent, tinkered with air brakes for elevators, corresponded with old acquaintances, and died in 1907. Although “his military experience was confined to what traditionally has been thought of as an unimportant backwater of the war,” she comments, “Ellithorpe was part of a unit that uniquely and successfully allied three races in the task of defeating the Confederacy” (pp. 183-84).
Cutrer and Johansson demonstrate that the trans-Mississippi was like any other theater: there was plenty of backstabbing, venality, and conflicts among people who supposedly fought on the same side. Rebels Ben McCulloch and Sterling Price hated each other and could not cooperate effectively. Earl Van Dorn’s appointment, which was supposed to solve this problem, “proved a cure worse than the disease” (p. 447). Edmund Kirby Smith and Richard Taylor also hated each other. On the Union side, James G. Blunt and John M. Schofield’s relationship could best be described as mutual contempt. Schofield downplayed Blunt’s accomplishments, intrigued against him, and attempted to relieve him of command. The irascible Blunt sarcastically replied that Schofield, instead of sending a messenger, “had better come and do it himself, and then for the first time during the war, he might see a little ‘active service’” (p. 331). As Johansson observes, the politics of regimental command could be as vicious as the politics of army command. Ellithorpe fervently believed a plot led by designing Kansas politicians frustrated his hopes for promotion, although Johansson seems less certain.
The two volumes raise important question about future study of this region. The trans-Mississippi—encompassing all the area west of the Mississippi River—is gigantic. Cutrer’s book leaves some portions of the theater unexamined and perhaps this is not a surprise. After all, is it really possible for historians to make sense of such a vast space? For that matter, is it correct to speak of this area as one theater? Perhaps the answer is that we need more work on the trans-Mississippi before we can produce an effective synthesis. On another topic, Cutrer and Johansson illustrate how the trans-Mississippi could contribute to developing how scholars understand the US Civil War. Cutrer notes, correctly, that African Americans and Native Americans played very important roles in this theater. Johansson reveals the existence of triracial regiments. Historians could very easily shift to the trans-Mississippi to complicate ideas about how race operated during and after the Civil War and move away from a black/white binary to more nuanced analysis.
Although both books deserve a wide readership, there are some problems that merit comment. Problematically, Cutrer stops in 1865. Although this might seem logical to some people, it is hard to sustain the claim that the war ended when Stand Watie surrendered. Many people, including Ulysses S. Grant, believed the war would not end until Maximilian left Mexico. Cutrer might have considered the tens of thousands of US soldiers the government shifted to Texas, as well as the problems of occupying former rebel states. In addition, the book contains errors of fact as well as repetition of phrases, sentences, and, occasionally, paragraphs. Finally, given his attention to both well-known and obscure campaigns, more than one map would have been helpful. The main problem with Johansson’s book is that her tight focus on Ellithorpe often obscures the men of his command. Thus, readers learn less about the soldiers he commanded than about Ellithorpe himself. The stories of Native American and African American soldiers who fought in the trans-Mississippi would certainly enrich scholarly understanding of the region, and the conflict more generally. Problems aside, Cutrer and Johansson have produced important contributions to the scholarly literature of the trans-Mississippi.
. Cutrer and Johansson have published previous books about the war in the trans-Mississippi. See Thomas W. Cutrer, Ben McCulloch and the Frontier Military Tradition (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993); and Jane Johansson, Peculiar Honor: A History of the 28th Texas Cavalry, 1862–1865 (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1998). For other studies of the trans-Mississippi see Jay Monaghan, Civil War on the Western Border, 1854–1865 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984); T. Michael Parrish, Richard Taylor: Soldier Prince of Dixie (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1992); William L. Shea and Earl J. Hess, Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1992); Albert Castel, Civil War Kansas: Reaping the Whirlwind (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997); Richard Lowe, Walker’s Texas Division C.S.A.: Greyhounds of the Trans-Mississippi (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004); William L. Shea, Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009); Mark A. Lause, Price’s Lost Campaign: The 1864 Invasion of Missouri (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2011); Paul Beck, Columns of Vengeance: Soldiers, Sioux, and the Punitive Expeditions, 1863–1864 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013); Ian Michael Spurgeon, Soldiers in the Army of Freedom: The 1st Kansas Colored, the Civil War’s First African American Combat Unit (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014); Jeffrey S. Prushankin, The Civil War in the Trans-Mississippi Theater, 1861–1865 (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 2015); Kyle S. Sinisi, The Last Hurrah: Sterling Price’s Missouri Expedition of 1864 (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015); Mark A. Lause, The Collapse of Price’s Raid: The Beginning of the End in Civil War Missouri (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2016); Deborah M. Liles and Angela Boswell, eds., Women in Civil War Texas: Diversity and Dissidence in the Trans-Mississippi (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2016); and Jerry D. Thompson, Tejano Tiger: José de los Santos Benavides and the Texas-Mexico Borderlands, 1823–1891 (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 2017). This list is not comprehensive. See the notes below for additional titles.
. Earl J. Hess, The Civil War in the West: Victory and Defeat from the Appalachians to the Mississippi (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012).
. See Clarissa W. Confer, The Cherokee Nation in the Civil War (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007); Mary Jane Warde, When the Wolf Came: The Civil War and the Indian Territory (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 2013); and Bradley R. Clampitt, ed., The Civil War and Reconstruction in Indian Territory (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015).
. See Jerry Thompson, Henry Hopkins Sibley: Confederate General of the West (Natchitoches, LA: Northwestern State University Press, 1987); Don Frazier, Blood and Treasure: Confederate Empire in the Southwest (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1995); Don Alberts, The Battle of Glorieta: Union Victory in the West (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1998); Jerry Thompson, Civil War in the Southwest: Recollections of the Sibley Brigade (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2001); and Jerry D. Thompson, A Civil War History of the New Mexico Volunteers & Militia (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2015).
. This is not surprising given the number of studies scholars have made of the Lone Star State. See James Marten, Texas Divided: Loyalty and Dissent in the Lone Star State, 1856–1874 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990); Richard B. McCaslin, Tainted Breeze: The Great Hanging at Gainesville, Texas 1862 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994); Donald S. Frazier, Cottonclads: The Battle of Galveston and the Defense of the Texas Coast (Abilene, TX: McWhiney Foundation Press, 1998); Ralph A. Wooster, Civil War Texas: A History and a Guide (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1999); Stephen A. Townsend, The Yankee Invasion of Texas (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2006); Kenneth W. Howell, ed., The Seventh Star of the Confederacy: Texas during the Civil War (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2009); and Jesús F. de la Teja, ed., Lone Star Unionism, Dissent, and Resistance; Other Sides of Civil War Texas (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016). Andrew E. Masich, Civil War in the Southwest Borderlands, 1861–1867 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017) focuses briefly on western Texas, but overlooks the rest of the state.
. He is in conversation with Donald S. Frazier, Fire in the Cane Field: The Federal Invasion of Louisiana and Texas, January 1861–January 1863 (Buffalo Gap, TX: State House Press, 2009); Donald S. Frazier, Thunder across the Swamp: The Fight for the Lower Mississippi, February–May 1863 (Buffalo Gap, TX: State House Press, 2011); and Donald S. Frazier, Blood on the Bayou: Vicksburg, Post Hudson, and the Trans-Mississippi (Buffalo Gap, TX: State House Press, 2015).
. Albert Castel, General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968). For challenges see Lawrence Lee Hewitt, Arthur W. Bergeron, Jr., and Thomas E. Schott, eds., Confederate Generals in the Trans-Mississippi: Volume I: Essays on America’s Civil War (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2013), and Lawrence Lee Hewitt and Thomas E. Schott, eds., Confederate Generals in the Trans-Mississippi: Volume 2: Essays on America’s Civil War (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2015).
. For recent studies see Lisa Brady, War Upon the Land: Military Strategy and the Transformation of Southern Landscapes during the American Civil War (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012); Kathryn Shively Meier, Nature’s Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013); and Matthew M. Stith, Extreme Civil War: Guerrilla Warfare, Environment, and Race on the Trans-Mississippi Frontier (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2016).
. See George Washington Williams, A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, 1861–1865 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1887); Dudley Taylor Cornish, The Sable Arm: Black Troops in the Union Army, 1861–1865 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1956); and Joseph T. Glatthaar, Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990).
. See Benjamin Madley, An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846–1873 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016).
. Johansson agrees with Daniel Sutherland on the importance of guerrilla warfare. See Daniel E. Sutherland, A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009). She chides Gary Gallagher and Kathryn Shively Meier for discounting the study of guerrilla warfare. See Gary Gallagher and Kathryn Shively Meier, “Coming to Terms with Civil War Military History,” Journal of the Civil War Era 4 (December 20124): 487–508.
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Evan C. Rothera. Review of Cutrer, Thomas W., Theater of a Separate War: The Civil War West of the Mississippi River, 1861-1865 and
Johansson, M. Jane, ed., Albert C. Ellithorpe, the First Indian Home Guards, and the Civil War on the Trans-Mississippi Frontier.
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