Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Benedict: "Jayhawkers: The Civil War Brigade of James Henry Lane"

[ Jayhawkers: The Civil War Brigade of James Henry Lane by Bryce Benedict (University of Oklahoma Press, 2009). Hardcover, map, illustrations, notes, bibliography, appendices, index. Pages main/total: 266/358. ISBN:9780806139999 $32.95 ]

U.S. Senator from Kansas James Henry Lane has been the subject of two recent biographies, by Robert Collins and Ian Michael Spurgeon1. While both works delve into Lane’s personal and political life, neither examines the senator’s military exploits in detail. Happily for Trans-Mississippi theater historians and students everywhere, the publication of Bryce Benedict’s Jayhawkers: The Civil War Brigade of James Henry Lane marks the first scholarly effort at filling this not inconsiderable gap in our collective knowledge about this (in)famous unit and its 1861-62 operations along the lower Missouri-Kansas border.

In organization and leadership, the “Lane Brigade” [essentially, the 3rd, 4th and 5th Kansas regiments2] was more than a bit irregular. Lane himself could not legally hold his senate seat and serve as a brigadier general at the same time, thus his command authority was constantly at issue (and rightly so) as he tried to have it both ways. The regiments were initially a hodgepodge of infantry, cavalry, and artillery companies. In fact, Benedict does a very commendable job of researching and sorting out this bizarre organizational mess, for various periods and at considerable length. His research efforts have injected a much needed dose of clarity on the matter.

The Lane Brigade’s area of operation during the Civil War consisted basically of a stretch of nine SE Kansas/SW Missouri border counties. Beyond the skirmish at Dry Wood (or Drywood) Creek in September 1861, the Lane Brigade experienced little in the way of regular combat, but the units participated in many raids into Missouri, largely against civilian targets. The senator was a very early advocate of the application of “hard war” against the property of pro-secession Missourians. While his extreme rhetoric was often more bark than bite, the men under his command did frequently burn private dwellings and plunder personal property in violation of orders (suffering little if any punishment). Murders and prisoner executions were not unusual; however the author found little corroborating evidence for many claims made against the Kansans by contemporaries and historians. Benedict believes the Lane Brigade is often singled out unfairly, considering that the units of John C. Fremont’s army committed the same abuses in their advance into western Missouri in October 1861.

Jayhawkers also devotes significant attention to the brigade’s role in the disruption of slavery inside the border counties of Missouri. Lane recognized that slavery could be ended anywhere his forces marched, either by seizing them directly or providing protection for runaways seeking asylum to the west in Kansas. While abhorring the institution of slavery, the senator himself was adamantly against whites and blacks living together in peace, preferring permanently separate settlements.

Benedict’s research is solid. His bibliography and notes demonstrate the source diversity – in manuscripts and other archives, court records, newspapers, books, pamphlets, and articles – readers have come to expect from better modern military studies. The author also included a number of useful appendices. In the first, Benedict summarized the early spring 1862 reorganization that basically ended the military entity known as the Lane Brigade. He also inserts a brigade staff list, and a brigade casualty assessment with a detailed list of deaths [name, date, company, cause, location] attached.

A source of dissatisfaction is the dearth of cartography and illustrations. There is only a single map tracing county boundaries and select locations. I was crestfallen not to find a tactical map of the brigade's only truly stand up fight at Dry Wood Creek, something I’ve yet to encounter in the literature. Illustrations are similarly sparse, with a small image gallery placed at the book’s midpoint.

While most of the literature, at least the popular writing, still portrays the pro-Union contribution to guerrilla warfare in Missouri as primarily reactive in nature, I would liked to have seen Benedict's study more directly address the role of the Lane Brigade in shaping the character of the savage irregular fighting that reached a terrible level of viciousness in Missouri from late 1862 onward. Benedict recognizes the first-strike nature3 of the brigade's operations, but his book, and its analysis, ends in the first half of 1862. To what degree did the Lane Brigade's brand of "hard war" in western Missouri accelerate the brutality of the guerrilla conflict in the region? Ultimately, what was the brigade's military legacy? These questions went largely unanswered. One could also wish for a more in depth treatment of the 1861 sacking of Osceola, Missouri, the most controversial single event involving the brigade.

Nevertheless, none of these quibbles detracts from the great value and significant strengths of this work. Benedict succeeds in presenting a balanced portrait of the Lane Brigade, acknowledging the unit’s lack of discipline and propensity for unlawful plunder while at the same time effectively repudiating (or at least casting serious doubt upon) many of the baser behavioral accusations made by contemporary enemies and later historians. Well researched and documented, Bryce's Benedict's Jayhawkers is a fine offering, one that the scholarly literature has needed on this subject for a very long time. Highly recommended.

1 - Man of Douglas, Man of Lincoln: The Political Odyssey of James Henry Lane by Ian Michael Spurgeon (Univ. of Missouri Press, 2008) and Jim Lane: Scoundrel, Statesman, Kansan by Robert Collins (Pelican, 2007).
2 - The 6th Kansas and the command of Charles R. "Doc" Jennison often cooperated with the units of the Lane Brigade and thus were also covered in the book.
3 - Throughout its rather brief existence, the Lane Brigade vigorously adopted the "best defense is a good offense" strategy. It was hoped that constant raids into Missouri would occupy the attention of regular and irregular enemy forces, leaving them little opportunity to launch their own incursions into Kansas. While successful to a significant degree, the jayhawker strategy would nevertheless render hollow claims that the operations were essentially retaliatory in nature.

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Civil War Books and Authors reviews of Univ. of Oklahoma Press titles:
* Powder River Odyssey: Nelson Cole's Western Campaign of 1865 the Journals of Lyman G. Bennett and Other Eyewitness Accounts (Arthur H. Clark Co.)
* The Uncivil War: Irregular Warfare In The Upper South, 1861-1865
* Three Days in the Shenandoah: Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester
* The Civil War in Arizona: The Story of the California Volunteers, 1861-1865

[review will also appear in On Point magazine in similar form]

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