Sunday, November 10, 2013

Robison: "MONTANA TERRITORY AND THE CIVIL WAR: A Frontier Forged on the Battlefield"

[Montana Territory and the Civil War: A Frontier Forged on the Battlefield by Ken Robison (The History Press, 2013). Softcover, photos, illustrations, bibliography, index. 156 pp. ISBN:978-1-62619-175-4 $19.99]

Though studies related to the Civil War years in the states and territories of the Far West remain few are far between, a small number have appeared recently, including a Pacific Northwest military history, a look at Lincoln's connections to Oregon County, and a survey of Civil War California. The newest example, Ken Robison's Montana Territory and the Civil War, is probably the first of its kind, a book length treatment emphasizing the Civil War origins of a mineral rich region organized in May 1864 from portions of existing Idaho and Dakota domains.

The format is a bit unusual. Montana Territory in the Civil War is not a popular narrative history nor is it a formal documented study. A short introductory section of the book describes the formation of the territory and its economic contribution to the Union war effort, but the great majority of the text consists of an extensive series of biographical sketches of individuals associated with the governance, settlement, and economic development of the territory.

Robison begins his collection of biographical vignettes, many of which have been previously published elsewhere, with those appointed territorial governor. As historian Richard Etulain and others have noted, Lincoln appointees had a spotty record of leadership in the Far West, and the situation in Montana was no exception. For the first 20 years of the territory's existence, all governors save one served in the Union army, and Robison highlights the unwillingness of many of these men to share the political process with conservative Democratic majorities in the legislature.

Thousands of Civil War veterans emigrated west to Montana (at least 6,200 by current count) during and after the war, and Robison profiles in his book eight men -- officers and enlisted soldiers, Union and Confederate -- who became prominent or colorful Montana residents. Other groups that served the Union cause, from black soldiers and sailors to female nurses and spies, are also represented, as are a number of Union generals that fought in Montana during the Indian Wars of the mid to late nineteenth century. The book concludes with a look at Civil War monuments erected in Montana and how the war was commemorated during the reconciliation period.  According to Robison, one of these granite structures is exceptional for being the northernmost monument honoring the service of Confederate soldiers.

Montana Territory and the Civil War does leave a great deal of room for a more in depth, scholarly examination of the Civil War years in Montana, one that documents and analyzes the civilian wartime experiences of the settlers and miners, their undoubtedly diverse attitudes toward the war raging far to the east, and the spectrum of their interactions and relationships with political leaders and the army. The main value of Robison's book, I think, is its attempt to awaken modern Montanans to their state's Civil War roots and connections, a common goal of many Sesquicentennial inspired projects. One wishes the author the best of luck with that very worthwhile endeavor.

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