Wednesday, January 11, 2017


[Albert C. Ellithorpe, the First Indian Home Guards, and the Civil War on the Trans-Mississippi Frontier edited by M. Jane Johansson (Louisiana State University Press, 2016). Cloth, 2 maps, photos, appendix, notes, select bibliography, index. Pages main/total:203/250. ISBN:978-0-8071-6358-0. $45]

The vast majority of published Civil War soldier journals and memoirs travel down the same beaten paths forged by the eastern and western theater armies of both sides. But every once in a while something truly out of the ordinary comes to light, its topical nature so rare it practically demands special attention. Transporting readers to the violent frontier borderland shared by Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Indian Territory in singular fashion, Jane Johansson's Albert C. Ellithorpe, the First Indian Home Guards, and the Civil War on the Trans-Mississippi Frontier is just such a noteworthy creature. 

According to Johansson's biographical research, the Vermont-born Ellithorpe was a successful Chicago businessman and inventor, who also pursued gold prospecting and antislavery newspaper journalism before the Civil War. He was a key force behind the organization of the 13th Illinois cavalry regiment but was outmaneuvered in his quest to obtain one of the unit's coveted field-grade officer commissions. Though Ellithorpe would to some degree benefit from the patronage process himself, his frustrations with the often cutthroat brand of partisan politics that went hand in hand with leadership appointments in volunteer regiments would plague his entire Civil War service.

The following year, through the influence of friends in high places, Ellithorpe was assigned the task of organizing an experimental regiment of pro-Union Indians, to be recruited from recently established Kansas camps thronging with refugees from Indian Territory. Formally mustered into service in spring 1862, the First Indian Home Guard regiment (with Ellithorpe as its major) was comprised of eight companies of Muscogee Creeks and two companies of Seminoles. The top leadership was white, but many of the company officers were Indians. African Creeks additionally served as soldiers and interpreters.

The two main sources of Johansson's book are Ellithorpe's war journal and the twenty-three newspaper articles he wrote anonymously for the Chicago Evening Journal. Ellithorpe's journal writing is neither uniformly polished nor particularly eloquent, but it does usefully inform readers of the major's personal experiences and those of his regiment during important Trans-Mississippi operations, two of the more prominent examples being the failed First Indian Expedition of 1862 and the successful Cane Hill-Prairie Grove winter campaign of the same year. The July 3, 1862 Battle of Locust Grove journal account is perhaps the best described military action among Ellithorpe's writings. By 1863, all three IHG regiments were brigaded together under the command of Colonel William A. Phillips and were finally able to escort many of the long-suffering refugee families back to their lands in Indian Territory.

In terms of the military features of Ellithorpe's writings, the most vivid accounts are related to the intractable guerrilla conflict that infested the region. The major was an early and enthusiastic advocate of hard war, and he freely discussed his unit's killing of suspected guerrillas without regard for any kind of due process restraints. His chief nemesis was Thomas R. Livingston's band, although, like many other Civil War participants, he undoubtedly attributed many independent acts to the most infamous guerrilla leader in the general area. The book features a regional conflict that represents one of the Civil War's closest approximations to what we would describe today as 'total war', making the volume a highly appropriate companion to Matthew Stith's recent Extreme Civil War (LSU, 2016). The relationship between the two becomes an even closer one considering how heavily Stith drew upon Ellithorpe for source material.

Ellithorpe missed the Union triumph at the Battle of Honey Springs and left the army in August 1863. He would later return to cover military operations in an apparent journalistic capacity, witnessing and documenting great events from the Trans-Mississippi war's latter period like the disastrous 1864 Confederate campaign across Missouri.

As one can see from the editor's chronological arrangement of the material, Ellithorpe often used his newspaper articles to flesh out events and opinions first raised in his journal. As mentioned above, he strongly advocated the application of hard war policy to the civilian population of the enemy. He fully supported emancipation (as both war measure and benefit to society) and expressed the typical soldier's disdain for the antiwar movement in the North. Ellithorpe also frequently admonished the Army of the Potomac for its seeming lack of progress during the early and middle periods of the conflict, unfavorably comparing continued stalemate in the East with unbridled Union success along the Trans-Mississippi frontier.

Much of Ellithorpe's journal is devoted to his indefatigable (but ultimately failed) efforts to root out corruption in the regiment. If his charges were entirely true, the situation was outrageous. According to Ellithorpe, the regiment's own lieutenant colonel (the frequently absent Stephen H. Wattles) stole the pay of the unit's scouts and interpreters, and several company officers conspired with the men to commit payroll fraud. Though James G. Blunt was Ellithorpe's idol throughout the war, the journal frequently blames the Kansas clique generally and Jim Lane personally for both thwarting the major's anti-corruption crusade and quashing his dreams of further promotion within the unit. However, in an odd turn, Ellithorpe seemingly had no qualms about assuming the editorship of the Leavenworth Daily Conservative in 1864 and supporting the reelection of Senator Lane. Perhaps the available evidence is too thin for any kind of meaningful examination, but this complicated relationship deserves deeper coverage than the book offers.

As Johansson herself laments in the book, perhaps the greatest source of disappointment regarding Ellithorpe's writings is the total absence in them of any personalized passages describing the major's relationship with the regiment's Indian officers and men. Ellithorpe also never used his newspaper article pulpit to either trumpet the merits of his IHG regiment or explicitly campaign for wider recognition of their achievements and sacrifices. It's quite strange. On the other hand, unlike many other Civil War officers, Ellithorpe didn't appear to be particularly sentimental about his time in the army, nor did he outwardly express deep feelings regarding any wider significance attached to his triracial regiment. 

The book's concluding chapter is an eventful account of Ellithorpe's postwar life and career. Returning to Chicago, he endured legal troubles and a publicized sex scandal, but his business ventures were again successful. Adding significantly to his legacy was his invention of an elevator safety device that proved widely useful in a Chicago rebuilding from the Great Fire of 1871. Unlike many others, he didn't appear to be heavily involved in veteran activities and organizations. Ellithorpe was asked to help facilitate the pension claim of General Blunt's widow by documenting his own thoughts as to the true cause of Blunt's insanity and subsequent institutionalization. Several different possibilities have been raised over the years, but Ellithorpe, citing his own interactions with Blunt, firmly believed that lingering mental trauma from the October 6, 1863 Battle of Baxter Springs permanently unhinged the general's mind.

Throughout the volume, Johannsson exhibits a high degree of knowledge and skill in the art of scholarly editing. In addition to fleshing out a fine biographical treatment of Ellithorpe, she also penned quite useful chapter introductions for the book. While at the same time providing substantial amounts of descriptive historical information, these extensive narrative passages (along with the endnotes) offer essential context and are obviously the product of someone steeped in the Civil War literature of the theater. In arranging the Ellithorpe materials to best effect, Johannsson also filled gaps with other documents discovered along the way during her research.

Jane Johansson's Albert C. Ellithorpe, the First Indian Home Guards, and the Civil War on the Trans-Mississippi Frontier is an utterly unique and timely contribution. Through the writings of Major Ellithorpe and Johansson's own investigation, the book sheds invaluable light on one of the war's least documented military fronts as well as one of the conflict's most unusual fighting formations.When it comes to the Indian Home Guards of the Union Army, hopefully this volume is just the first step, and other scholars will pick up the torch and probe further.

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