Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Bonds: "Stealing the General: The Great Locomotive Chase and the First Medal of Honor"

[Stealing the General: The Great Locomotive Chase and the First Medal of Honor by Russell S. Bonds (Westholme Publishing, 2006) Hardcover, 7 maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, source essay. Page Total/Main: 461/375 ISBN: 978-1-59416-033-2 $29.95]

In the spring of 1862, two dozen men drawn from Ormsby Mitchel's division of the Army of the Ohio and led by adventurer James Andrews participated in a daring raid behind enemy lines. Rather than summarize it here, I'll presume that most readers know the general points (if not, check out the author's website, here). It is certainly a saga that meets all the requirements of high drama.

I'll admit to not having much prior interest in the Andrews Raid, but I found myself completely absorbed by author Russell Bonds's stylish account. Phenomenally well written, organized, and presented, Stealing the General is a masterful narrative history of the raid's planning, execution, and somber aftermath. The journey southward, the stealing of the locomotive General, the chase, and the ultimate capture of all of the raiders is only half the story. The book also details the men's long imprisonment, court trials, and escapes (both foiled and successful). Eight of the men, including Andrews, were executed by hanging, while the rest either escaped or were paroled. Most were awarded the Medal of Honor, with a group of the raiders being the first recipients of the new decoration.

As a writer, Russell Bonds is exceptionally adept at building dramatic tension, a task not so easy to succeed at when describing well known events. He also possesses finely tuned descriptive and analytic powers, traits that undoubtedly serve the author well in his law career. Eleven of the sixteen surviving raiders published their 'story' in one form or another, and Bonds does a wonderful job of reconciling these predictably self-serving, fanciful, and often contradictory accounts, duly noting where the task is found to be impossible. In company with many other writers and historians, I think Bonds can be a bit too hard on General Buell in places. I can think of nothing else I could possibly quibble with. I did appreciate very much the author's lengthy assessment of Ormsby Mitchel's unfortunately brief wartime role (he died of disease later on that year) and his division's military operations prior to and during the raid. It is a necessary context in order to fully understand the purpose of the raid and perhaps its degree of foolhardiness.

In terms of editing and presentation, Stealing the General is a first rate publication. The maps are attractive and useful, while numerous photographs give a human face to all the characters involved. As a niche publisher, it is hoped that Westholme continues to be involved in the Civil War field.

As with many items of recent scholarship, the subject of historical memory is an integral part of this particular study. The author meticulously pieces together how the story of the raiders was formed in the public imagination, with all the inevitable jealousies and indignations among the numerous participants vying for credit. While successive reunions often served to soften some of these attitudes among friend and foe, a turf war arose over ownership of perhaps the most tangible item from the raid, the General itself. These conflicts serve as yet another fascinating element of Bonds's all-encompassing study.

I heartily recommend this engrossing, award-winning study of the men and events surrounding "The Great Locomotive Chase". For the foreseeable future, Stealing the General will likely be considered the definitive treatment of this bold yet tragic venture.

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As one who appreciates inventive and visually arresting cover art, I must say this is one my favorites of recent times. [authors shopping for a publisher take note] - Westholme has also impressed me with its ability to get multiple copies of its books into so many bookstores over here. In this area, Civil War bookshelf space is small and dwindling fast, so it's no mean feat.

2 comments:

  1. Just got this book about a week ago - after reading your post, I am really looking forward to reading it!

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  2. Drew,

    I finished Stealing/General a month or so ago. I don't like hyperbole, but StG is one of the best books I've read...ever...of any kind. The storytelling and scholarship was wonderful. As if the story of the chase wasn't enough, Russell Bonds gave us some great additional threads - "Old Stars," escapes, trials, and a hint what seems to be a really interesting story in itself - the postwar murder trial of one of the Raiders.

    Best Regards,

    Jim Schmidt

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