[The Last Confederate General: John C. Vaughn and His East Tennessee Cavalry by Charles Larry Gordon (Zenith Press, 2009). Hardcover, 7 maps, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 202/272. ISBN: 9780760335178 $27]
Modern reappraisals of maligned Civil War figures like Confederate General John Crawford Vaughn often attempt to even the score by either going too far in the other direction or attacking the subject's critics. Fortunately, Charles Larry Gordon's The Last Confederate General: John C. Vaughn and His East Tennessee Cavalry avoids such tactics, and instead attempts a balanced, 'warts and all' portrait of the man.
Largely a military biography, Gordon's book broadly examines the major and minor campaigns Vaughn participated in stretching from Mississippi to Virginia. The general commanded an infantry regiment at First Bull Run and a brigade during the Vicksburg Campaign. Returning to service after the surrender in Mississippi, Vaughn assumed command of a cavalry brigade that engaged in numerous 1863-1864 East Tennessee operations. These ended in the loss of most of the region to Federal control. The brigade was then transferred east across the mountains, meeting disaster at the Battle of Piedmont but performing generally well during Early's subsequent Shenandoah ventures. Later in the year, Vaughn returned to East Tennessee, finding some success in keeping Union forces out of its upper reaches and in rooting out guerrillas. The general ended the war in Georgia, having linked up with President Davis's fleeing government.
Much space is devoted to Vaughn's association with the 1863 Vicksburg Campaign and the 1864 Battle of Piedmont. Unfortunately for the general's reputation, these highly visible fights were the sources of his greatest personal command disasters, although Gordon reasonably maintains that the severe losses suffered at Big Black Bridge and Piedmont were as much the product of poor initial deployment by Vaughn's superiors as any kind of personal mismanagement.
One of the best services modern military biographies and unit histories provide is in detailing smaller battles and campaigns often overlooked by other studies. While Vaughn's sometimes successful 1864-1865 East Tennessee operations are briefly summarized, by not examining these neglected operations in greater detail, the author missed a golden opportunity to significantly enhance the value of his study for scholars and serious avocational students. Gordon also could have used his study to highlight many of the broader problems with the Confederacy's western mounted arm. The wretched discipline of Vaughn's brigade was a command failure endemic to much of the western cavalry. Poor equipment and irregular supply cannot excuse the degree of straggling and marauding. Additionally, one finds no evidence in Gordon's study that Vaughn, like all too many of his peers, made any serious attempt to impose discipline on his men, even in the face of a constant stream of real and implied reprimands from brother officers and superiors. Even the decision to mount the men of Vaughn's command in the first place was controversial, as the department was ill equipped to support yet more cavalry and was in dire need of infantry. These theater-wide leadership, organizational, and logistical failures would indeed make for an interesting study by some enterprising scholar.
Challenged by the lack of a surviving cache of his subject's private papers, Gordon was nevertheless able to draw enough from a variety of other sources to piece together a suitably detailed history of Vaughn's early life and post-war years. The general experienced many of the privations common to Confederates attempting to return to East Tennessee. Financially ruined, his personal reputation was also tarnished by his involvement in a pension fraud scheme.
The Last Confederate General is a largely sympathetic, yet even handed, appraisal of the checkered military career of John C. Vaughn. In addition to the narrative account of the general's military service, the lengthy biographical sketch is useful, both as a portrait of a neglected Civil War figure and a personalized example of the deep divisions within East Tennessee politics and society.