Tuesday, August 27, 2013

"Civil War General and Indian Fighter James M. Williams: Leader of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry and the 8th U.S. Cavalry"

The life of abolitionist, Jayhawker, Civil War general, and Indian campaigner James M. Williams certainly merits a proper biographical treatment and his regiment, the First Kansas Colored Infantry, is without a doubt deserving of a modern unit history. So news that Robert Lull was publishing a study combining both elements in Civil War General and Indian Fighter James M. Williams: Leader of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry and the 8th U.S. Cavalry (University of North Texas Press, 2013) was a welcome development. Unfortunately, my hopes for a top notch treatment were quickly dashed. [Note: it is my policy to only review titles read in their entirety (in this case, I quit after the end of the Civil War years), so my comments are of a selective 'snapshot' nature rather than a consideration of the whole.]

Lull's biographical sketch of Williams is reasonably good and he does bring welcome attention to a number of small yet significant Trans-Mississippi military events [e.g. Island Mound, Cabin Creek, Honey Springs, and Poison Spring] fought within Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, and Indian Territory. However, I found the book's tone, content, and interpretative elements problematic in a number of ways. The author's constant 'rah-rah regiment' cheerleading when describing the exploits of the 1st Kansas quickly becomes grating for those of us who prefer our history presented in a more dispassionate manner. Lull also employs some questionable secondary sources and frequently cites secondary sources for direct quotes rather than the original documents.  The amount of new information pertaining to these battles, as well as the 1st Kansas's role in them, seems negligible.  Additionally, the interpretations of earlier scholars are too often simply repeated in the text, without much in the way of Lull's own reevaluation of the evidence. Finally, little is revealed about Williams himself in his own words, though it's entirely possible sources are lacking in this regard.

The most obvious problem with the book, however, is the raw state of the manuscript, more akin to an early galley than a finished product fit to be published by a university press. The writing is unpolished and typographical errors abound. There's even a place in the book where an entire extended passage is repeated word for word, the two blocks of text located only pages apart. UNT Press has published some strong Civil War related titles in the past (see below), but they really dropped the ball on the editing for this one.  I cannot recommend this book in its current form.

Other titles from UNT Press:
* Antebellum Jefferson, Texas: Everyday Life in an East Texas Town
* Andersonvilles of the North: The Myths and Realities of Northern Treatment of Civil War Confederate Prisoners
* The Seventh Star of the Confederacy: Texas During the Civil War
* Texas Civil War Artifacts: A Photographic Guide to the Physical Culture of Texas Civil War Soldiers
* Spartan Band: Burnett’s 13th Texas Cavalry in the Civil War

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