Sunday, November 30, 2014

Robison: "CONFEDERATES IN MONTANA TERRITORY: In the Shadow of Price's Army"

[Confederates in Montana Territory: In the Shadow of Price's Army by Ken Robison (The History Press, 2014). Softcover, illustrations, photos, bibliography, index. 190 pp. ISBN:978-1-62619-603-2 $19.99]

During and shortly after the Civil War, thousands of Border State men and their families sought to escape the war and its consequences by relocating to the American West, that great American destination for ambitious fortune seekers as well that those fleeing a variety of personal, economic and social pressures. Rich mining prospects were incentive enough, but factors like deserter status, draft evasion, threats against life and property, and outright banishment led many southern sympathizers to places like Montana Territory, which roughly doubled in population between its informal September 1864 census and its mid-1860s peak (before dropping back to just over 20,000 residents by 1870).

A Montana paper referred to this influx as the "left wing of Price's army" and the migration patterns into and then out of the territory would make for an interesting research project. Ken Robison's Confederates in Montana Territory: In the Shadow of Price's Army is not that kind of study, but it does touch upon key overlying themes. The opening section outlines population, political, and economic trends in the territory, with 1862 and 1863 gold strikes attracting a flood of opportunists and an uneasy alliance between Irish immigrants and Southern Democrats facilitating that party's strong showing in the territorial legislature. The book's final section briefly examines Confederate monument placement and other aspects of Lost Cause public memorialization in Montana during the decades following the war.

Background elements aside, individual stories are the real focus of Confederates in Montana Territory. More than a dozen chapter length biographies trace the Civil War and territorial activities of a selected group of men who left war and Reconstruction behind to become Montana miners, businessmen, militia leaders, and even criminals. Henry Kennerly is unusual in that he began his public life in the territory before going east to Missouri to fight, returning to Montana to prosper as a Democratic leader. John Rogers is another Missourian and prominent territorial politician who fought with Price. Yet another ex-Missouri State Guardsman active in the Montana legislature was Thomas Thoroughman, who was banished from the state during the war but later returned home. A successful lawyer, Mississippian Horace Buck didn't enter the territory until after the war. German immigrant and Kentucky Confederate trooper John Lilly rode with Forrest, his wartime experiences presented in the book through extensive diary excerpts. Moving to Montana after the war, Lilly was a renowned saloon operator and Indian fighter. Representing the criminal element is ex-bushwhacker Jim Berry, who robbed stagecoaches with the Sam Bass gang. The Conrad brothers served with Mosby's Rangers and became successful merchants in Montana after leaving their war torn Shenandoah home behind. Perry and John Moore were part of Jefferson Davis's escort party and joined their family in Montana after the war. Shirley Ashby was yet another Confederate cavalryman who made the post war journey to Montana, where he worked for the Conrad brothers mentioned above. Another Virginian, Frank Brown, was a bison fur trader and active UCV promoter. Finally, the story of ex-slave Joseph Wells, who was a body servant to his Missouri master during the war and a successful Montana miner after, is told. Beyond the fact that no Confederate women were profiled, it's a pretty good cross section of colorful backgrounds and experiences.

In common with other books from this press Confederates in Montana Territory is profusely illustrated. In this particular case, the narrative format is that of popular rather than scholarly history. The text is not footnoted and the bibliography, represented in an unorthodox manner, is organized by chapter. In connecting modern Montana residents with their Civil War history through lively personal stories, the book achieves what it sets out to do. Hopefully, it will also inspire others to study the Civil War era's influence on the social, political and economic development of the Mountain West region.

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