Monday, September 10, 2007

Sellmeyer: "Jo Shelby's Iron Brigade"

[Jo Shelby's Iron Brigade by Deryl P. Sellmeyer (Pelican Publishing Co., 2007) Hardback, photos, maps, notes, bibliography. Pages Total/Main=381/329 ISBN: 978-1-58980-430-2 $29.95]

The popular view of Joseph Orville Shelby has been largely molded by John Newman Edwards's fancifully unreliable Shelby and His Men; or, the War in the West, and the standard biography written almost a century later (now quite dated) by Daniel O'Flaherty, titled General Jo Shelby: Undefeated Rebel. Shelby's Civil War military career has long needed a modern objective treatment, a task attempted by author Deryl Sellmeyer in his new book Jo Shelby's Iron Brigade.

In the main, Sellmeyer's study is an organizational and command history of the cavalry brigade's1 role in the various skirmishes, raids, and battles that raged across Missouri and Arkansas2. Sellmeyer's blow by blow account of the military career of Shelby and his brigade is a workmanlike effort, based very heavily on the O.R.3 As such, the narrative does not follow the modern convention of widespread integration into the text of primary accounts gleaned from diaries, journals, or letters. The reader also will not find unit demographic data or detailed biographical sketches of either the brigade officers or the rank and file. What it is is a very thorough account of the brigade's battle history from a top-down perspective.

While a variety of primary and secondary sources were consulted (including some manuscript materials), the depth is thin, with many readily available materials -- both published and unpublished -- absent from the bibliography. Use of these sources undoubtedly would have enhanced and enlivened the manuscript. Although photographs are plentiful, the lack of original maps is disappointing, the book's archival reproductions being general and of limited usefulness for a brigade-level unit study.

The strength of Sellmeyer's study is in the comprehensiveness of its military coverage. Readers, even those not particularly interested in Shelby's brigade, will find the book a useful general survey of Trans-Mississippi cavalry operations. For the most part, the author maintains an even keel and avoids the hyperbole so clearly attached to prior histories of this unit. Analysis is sparse, but the author does make an excellent point in asserting how difficult a task it is to evaluate the brigade's performance in light of its subordination to an unending string of poor quality superiors at division level and above. Not making brigadier general until early 1864, a full assessment of Shelby's military ability and potential is hampered throughout by his lack of seniority, and a dearth of significant opportunities for independent action.

Taking into account the reservations detailed above, I would still recommend Jo Shelby's Iron Brigade to readers of Trans-Mississippi Civil War history. Even with its flaws and omissions, Sellmeyer's book is clearly best history to date of this hard charging cavalry brigade.

1 - The brigade was composed of three Missouri cavalry regiments (5th, 6th, and 12th), with the addition of a mounted battalion (Elliot's) and small battery (Bledsoe/Collins).
2 - As an organized unit, Shelby's brigade saw heavy action at the battles of Newtonia, Cane Hill, and Prairie Grove in 1862. The next year saw extensive raids into Missouri as part of Marmaduke's division and participation in heavy fighting back in Arkansas around Helena and Little Rock. An opportunity for independent action also arose (Shelby's "Great Raid"). In 1864, Shelby fought in the Camden Expedition and the Price Raid. In between, he operated successfully in northeast Arkansas. The post-war sojourn in Mexico is also covered in some detail.
3 - While it would be unfair to say the book's descriptions of the various battles and campaigns are drawn exclusively from the
O.R., the reality is not too far from the mark.

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