[Marauder: The Life and Times of Nathaniel McClure Menefee by Randall Osborne (East Kentucky Press, 2014). Cloth, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:186/203. ISBN:978-1-941272-14-5 $34]
Nathaniel Menefee may be an obscure figure today to Civil War scholars and enthusiasts alike but citizens of the border country shared by Kentucky and Virginia would have been well aware of his activities during the first two years of the conflict. Randall Osborne has spent decades researching and writing about individuals, units, and events associated with this region's Civil War experiences and his new book Marauder: The Life and Times of Nathaniel McClure Menefee is both groundbreaking biography and informative local history.
Menefee certainly led a colorful life. A native of Lincoln County, Kentucky, teenager Menefee emigrated to Missouri with his family. Fighting under Sterling Price during the final stages of the Mexican War, he lost a leg to cannon fire. Obtaining a disability pension, Menefee succumbed to gold fever like many of his countrymen, but found farming in California and a post as Sonoma County clerk more amenable to his physical limitations. Returning to Kentucky, he graduated from law school in Louisville just in time to be caught up in secession and Civil War.
Menefee apparently fought at Bull Run in an unofficial capacity before his failure to obtain a regular Confederate commission made him turn to guerrilla fighting in his native state. Operating on the upper reaches of the Big Sandy River valley, he was a terror to civilian life and property. Brought up on murder charges by Confederate authorities in early 1863, Menefee escaped from jail and disappeared from view for the next two years [Osborne speculates that he may have been shielded by General John S. Williams] before leaving the country for a Confederado colony in Santarem, Brazil following the war.
Biographers are often accused of falling in love with their subjects but that is clearly not the case here. Osborne titles his treatment "Marauder" for good reason, as the Kentuckian's career of killing and plundering (with none of the latter making its way into the coffers of the authorities) accomplished little toward advancing the cause of the Confederacy in the region. The author details in the book all of Menefee's major operations in East Kentucky, his most militarily significant action being the summer 1862 capture of Pikeville in cooperation with Confederate forces. Menefee frequently detailed his exploits in letters to newspapers, all written in third person and with a content and tone truly remarkable for bombastic and narcissistic untruth. Fortunately, Osborne uncovered many other sources to weigh against Menefee's exaggerated self-promotion and self-pity, offering readers a much more balanced picture of what really happened. In a situation similar to many others across the Border and Upper South, such depredations backfired. Far from weakening Union control or cowing the populace, Menefee's actions instead prompted the formation of the 39th Kentucky Mounted Infantry led by wealthy Unionist and frequent marauder target John Dils. The presence of this regiment only solidified Union control of the Upper Sandy.
A published expert on the Virginia State Line, the militia organization headed by failed Confederate general John Floyd, Osborne also details Menefee's attempt to gain legitimate combatant status by associating with the VSL. He obtained this presumed cover for his bushwhacker activities by an extralegal agreement with Floyd by which the Virginian would personally secure paperwork for Menefee and his men but preserve the Kentuckian's independence by not officially submitting the commission and rolls to state authorities. Whatever one thinks of his military exploits, Menefee did prove an able recruiter, by some estimates bringing up to 13 companies into the ranks of the
VSL. Floyd eventually broke his word, assigning Menefee's recruits to officers under his own command. Throughout his career as a self-styled "colonel" of Kentucky partisans, Menefee frequently clashed with Confederate and Virginia state military authorities, lamenting his inability to obtain a regular Confederate commission and railing against broken promises real and imagined. With such a divided and hostile command structure among the triumvirate of secessionist irregular bands, Confederate army forces under General Humphrey Marshall, and Virginia state forces under Floyd, it is easy for readers to contemplate the reasons behind their failure to seriously threaten Union control of the Big Sandy.
As mentioned above, Marauder is also a useful tool for local and family history. Consulting an array of newspapers, publications of all types, and manuscript collections along with an extensive body of city and county pension, census, tax and court records, Osborne presents a vivid picture of the "inner" Civil War as experienced by SE Kentucky residents of both political persuasions. This study is highly recommended reading for those wishing to delve deeper into East Kentucky's oft overlooked Civil War. In addition to its sound biographical treatment and learned reexamination of hazy truths surrounding Confederate guerrilla chieftain Nathaniel Menefee, the book's perspective expands beyond ground level coverage to incorporate a useful overview of the region's general state of military affairs over the first two years of the war while also addressing a host of associated home front issues.