Thursday, September 8, 2016

Five books on the Civil War in the Far West

1. The Enemy Never Came: The Civil War in the Pacific Northwest by Scott McArthur (2012).
The Enemy Never Came doesn't offer the greatest of reading experiences, but it is the only book length study of the Civil War years in the region. The author's primary interest lies in Oregon's Willamette Valley, where there was significant Democratic opposition to the war. Soldier life in the three Pacific Northwest regiments (the 1st Oregon Volunteer Cavalry, 1st Oregon Volunteer Infantry, and the 1st Washington Territorial Infantry) is discussed, as is the civilian experience and the war's impact on the local economy. The full range of internal and external threats feared by Union authorities, nearly all of which proved groundless, are also considered.
2. All Quiet on the Yamhill: The Civil War in Oregon by Royal A. Bensell edited by Gunter Barth (1959).
During the war, Corporal Royal A. Bensell (Company D, 4th California Volunteer Infantry) was stationed at Fort Yamhill, a post situated along the banks of the Yamhill River approximately 25 miles west of Salem, as well as Fort Hoskins and the blockhouse at Siletz. The book's title expresses the overall lack of excitement, and Bensell's daily journal (beginning in March 1862 and ending in October 1864) relates his often frustrating experiences in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. Editor Gunter Barth's preface, extensive footnotes, detailed pullout map of the region, and four appendices add a great deal of value to the book. The volume also serves notice to just how widespread California's Civil War volunteers were deployed throughout the vast West, filling the considerable vacuum left by the departed Regulars.
3. The Golden State in the Civil War: Thomas Starr King, the Republican Party, and the Birth of Modern California by Glenna Matthews (2012).
For the purposes of this list, the Far West is limited to Washington Territory and the states of Oregon and California, with perhaps the Mountain West and the Desert Southwest getting entries of their own sometime down the line. The most commonly cited general history remains Aurora Hunt's now dated The Army of the Pacific (1951) and no one has really tried to supplant it since. Matthews's book is a reasonably inclusive survey of California's Civil War history and contributions. Beyond the focus on internal politics and Starr King's efforts to keep the state firmly inside the Union, discussions branch off into finance, military affairs, and the state's minority groups.
4. Los Angeles in Civil War Days, 1860–1865 by John W. Robinson (1977).
Robinson's book was originally published in 1977 and was reissued in paperback in 2013. Though the scholarship is a bit dated by today's standards, it's still a very worthwhile examination of the Civil War years in the city and surrounding county. It's also the only book length study of the subject. The military presence is discussed, but the primary emphasis is on the political divisions and economy, the latter shattered by a devastating drought that occurred during the second half of the war.
5. Californio Lancers: The 1st Battalion of Native Cavalry in the Far West, 1863–1866 by Tom Prezelski (2015).
Unfortunately, no modern unit histories exist for the many conventional volunteer military units raised in Washington, Oregon, and California. Prezelski's book is an interesting look at an unusual mounted battalion mostly comprised of Spanish-speaking "Californios" and immigrants from the Americas. The study is a fairly comprehensive exploration of enlistment motivations, officer backgrounds, unit organization, and operations (mostly internal security and border patrol).

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