Thursday, August 9, 2012

"Westward the Texans"

Trans-Mississippians love to complain about what's ignored in the literature, but, given its small size, there's actually a rather large body of published material for the 1861-62 Confederate invasion of Arizona and New Mexico. Few have contributed as much to the field as historian Jerry Thompson. Westward the Texans: The Civil War Journal of Private William Randolph Howell (Texas Western Press, 1990) comprises yet another very worthwhile offering from this prolific Civil War author and editor.

Thompson begins the book with a set of annotated bibliographical essays for the campaign (one each for diaries, letters, memoirs, official records, and newspapers), weighing the content and relative value of each. These are a great beginning resource for those looking to delve into primary sources.

A soldier in the 4th Texas Mounted Volunteers, Howell began his journal in April 1861 and ended it in July 1862. Different from other existing diaries and letters, which are frequently fragmentary, Howell covers the entire Sibley campaign, often on a daily basis. Entries are typically only a few sentences, but early passages and those covering the fighting can be several paragraphs in length. The retreat chronicle is quite valuable, and remarkable given how arduous and worrisome the experience must have been and how sick Howell was near the end [As an aside, the book includes the best map that I've ever seen depicting the path of the retreat in the mountains west of Fort Craig].

As with most Thompson books, the background material contained in the notes is expansive, with mounds of detail associated with persons, places, and events mentioned in Howell's journal. The bibliography is richer than those found in most original works of the period, another common characteristic of Thompson's editorial career. With the diary and rich supplemental material, there's much in Westward the Texans to recommend to students of both the New Mexico Campaign and Texas Confederates in general.

Though out of print, used copies are available at reasonable prices.

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