Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"The Autobiography of Henry Merrell: Industrial Missionary to the South"

One would never guess it from the title, but The Autobiography of Henry Merrell: Industrial Missionary to the South (Univ of Georgia Pr, 1991) is full of information about the Civil War in Arkansas. A Utica, New York native, Merrell parleyed a short stint at the Oneida Institute into a manufacturing and mechanical engineering career, much of it spent in the South in Georgia and Arkansas. Edited and annotated by James L. Skinner, The Autobiography of Henry Merrell comes to almost 600 pages, divided into three sections detailing Merrell's ventures in New York, Georgia, and Arkansas, the latter being of most interest here, as they comprise the Civil War years. With his autobiographical writing compiled at different times, Merrell made numerous mistakes, stumbling with dates and names, but Skinner's editorial notes, while not terribly extensive, correct these and also provide some additional background information.

Although a loyal Confederate through his southern economic and family ties, Merrell's experiences in convincing the local population that he was not just another 'yankee speculator' were not always successful. The army, conversely, was much more trustful and sought to utilize the New Yorker's manufacturing business and engineering background [apparently, his impressively designed dam and factory on the Little Missouri River brought Merrell a degree of regional fame]. In the spring of 1863, he was awarded the honorary rank of major and the task of obstructing the Arkansas River. Merrell's detailed description (accompanied by a drawing) of his ingeniously anchored river abatis is fascinating. Additionally, some striking personal insights into the guerrilla conflict within the state are offered.

On the other hand, his secondhand descriptions of many battles and campaigns in the state (e.g. Arkansas Post, Prairie Grove, Cotton Plant, etc.) often seem misplaced and bloat the narrative without providing substantive material for present day historians. A devoted partisan of generals Edmund Kirby Smith and Theophilus Holmes, Merrell had less positive things to say about Sterling Price and Richard Taylor. After the fall of Little Rock, Merrell moved his family to Camden, where he assisted in some capacity in its earthwork defense preparations [a nice map of Camden and its forts is provided by the editor] until the relief of his patron, General Holmes, left him temporarily without employment. At the end of 1864, Merrell was sent by Kirby Smith to Europe on a mission to obtain machinery for a new manufacturing center in Texas, finding himself in England when the war ended. It would be fair to say that students of a variety of historical interests, from early 19th century southern industry to the Civil War in Arkansas, will find this book of particular relevancy to their work.

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