Sunday, June 7, 2009

Caudill: "Moss Bluff Rebel: A Texas Pioneer in the Civil War"

[ Moss Bluff Rebel: A Texas Pioneer in the Civil War by Philip Caudill* (Texas A&M University Press, 2009). Hardcover, 3 maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. 211 pages. ISBN: 9781603440899 $29.95 ]

Born in Louisiana, William Berry Duncan was a Texas immigrant, his Lone Star residency spanning what must have been a bewildering series of momentous political changes over a relatively brief period of time -- Texas being a Mexican province, independent republic, and a U.S. and Confederate state, all within a thirty year period. Duncan lived an active but abbreviated life, dying at the age of 49 just two years following the end of the Civil War. Before the war, the twice married Duncan was a large landowner and minor slaveholder. He was also employed as a sheriff and cattleman, driving large beef herds along the Gulf trails connecting Southeast Texas with major markets at New Orleans.

However, the vast bulk of author Philip Caudill's biographical study of Duncan, titled Moss Bluff Rebel: A Texas Pioneer in the Civil War, covers his subject's wartime service as an officer in the 11th Texas (Spaight's) Battalion. While the author drew his research from a satisfactory range of primary and secondary sources, the many diaries written by Captain Duncan comprise the heart of his original research material. Caudill's account of Duncan's leadership ability is an admiring one, but he doesn't shy away from the Texan's heavy drinking and gambling. Duncan was fortunate among Confederate soldiers in that he was able to frequently visit his home. Additionally, he and his company experienced very little direct combat, given their length of service from 1862 onward. Nevertheless, Duncan's health was precarious throughout, and, rendered worse by heavy alcohol abuse, it failed altogether in 1867.

In some ways, Moss Bluff Rebel is as much a unit history of Spaight's Battalion as a biography of Capt. Duncan. Captain Ashley Spaight raised a militia cavalry company from Liberty County (the "Moss Bluff Rebels"), and, in the spring of 1862, his unit became the final addition to the six-company 11th Texas Battalion. With now Lieutenant Colonel Spaight's elevation to battalion leader, Duncan was awarded command of Company F. Between 1862 and 1865, the battalion operated within a narrowly defined geographical area. Beyond short stints in Louisiana, the unit was constantly on the move inside Texas, ranging back and forth between Houston and Niblett's Bluff on the Texas border with Louisiana [The book includes three nice maps of these areas]. Much of the time, the battalion was part of Major General John B. Magruder's military district. Both Spaight and Duncan held a low opinion of Magruder's character and ability, and the author seemed to adopt the same judgment by extension, despite the general's successes.

While the battalion's fighting role beyond the May 1864 Confederate victory at Calcasieu Pass was minimal overall (Company F's even less), Caudill's account nevertheless provides an informative and valuable portrait of the Civil War in SE Texas and of an individual of regional significance, William B. Duncan. Moss Bluff Rebel is recommended reading for researchers and students of Civil War Texas.

* - Caudill runs a nice author website for Moss Bluff Rebel. When putting together his study for publication, he constructed some rather extensive sidebar notes for each chapter. While these did not make it into the book, they are available for viewing on his website here. They are worthwhile reading.

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