Monday, December 18, 2017

Review of Ballard - "WILLIAM EDMONDSON "GRUMBLE" JONES: The Life of a Cantankerous Confederate"

[William Edmondson "Grumble" Jones: The Life of a Cantankerous Confederate
by James Buchanan Ballard (McFarland 800-253-2187, 2017). Softcover, maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:257/294. ISBN:978-1-4766-7076-8. $39.95]

Born into a prosperous SW Virginia farming family, William Edmondson Jones received a fine education at both Emory and Henry College and the United States Military Academy. Jones graduated in the respectable top quarter of his 1848 class at West Point and joined the army's mounted rifle regiment as a newly minted 2nd lieutenant. Eventually promoted to first lieutenant, most of his antebellum army service was spent on the frontier in Oregon and Texas. While en route to the latter posting, Jones suffered personal tragedy when his steamship ran aground just off the coast and his new wife was drowned. In 1857, Jones resigned from the army and became a promotional and sales agent for the Sibley tent. Joining the army of the CSA as a field grade officer in 1861, Jones steadily rose in rank and responsibility. He conducted numerous independent operations and participated in many eastern theater campaigns and battles before dying at the head of a small ad-hoc army during the June 5, 1864 Battle of Piedmont. All of the above and more are discussed at length in James Buchanan Ballard's William Edmondson "Grumble" Jones: The Life of a Cantankerous Confederate, the first complete biography of General Jones to appear in the Civil War literature.

Civil War armies were full of famously prickly generals, but Jones is certainly noteworthy for having that undesirable quality reflected in his own nickname (though it might sound amusing or endearing to us today). There are many possibilities of where "Grumble" might have come from, among them the aforementioned personal tragedy and bitter feuds with superiors W.W. Loring in the old army and J.E.B. Stuart during the Civil War, but Ballard was unable to uncover any clear evidence of exactly when and where that appellation originated. Jones was well respected by most of his peers during the Civil War (most notably by both Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee) and apparently didn't cause problems during his time at West Point, but he could also certainly rub brother officers (superiors and subordinates alike) the wrong way. What Ballard's treatment of Jones does make clear is that the general's "cantankerous" nature did not substantively hinder his military effectiveness. 

Over many chapters, Ballard's study offers a very thorough account of Jones's Civil War career leading Confederate cavalry at several different command levels. Jones began the war as a field grade officer in Stuart's 1st Virginia Cavalry. The book does not present a clear cut source for the animosity between Jones and Stuart, but it appears that clashing personalities probably had more than a little to do with it and both men apparently took an instant dislike to each other. Later on, Jones replaced Turner Ashby at the head of the 7th Virginia after the popular cavalryman was killed in action in June 1862. Over Stuart's objection, Jones was promoted to brigadier general in September 1862 and placed in charge of the Shenandoah Valley District. Though his failure to eject the much more numerous Union forces from the region led to his removal for political reasons, Jones retained his military reputation.

In 1863, Jones made noteworthy contributions to three significant military events—the spring Jones-Imboden Raid into West Virginia, the June 9 Battle of Brandy Station, and the retreat from Gettysburg in early July— and all are well documented in the text. Throughout, Ballard employs an even-handed approach to his assessments of Jones's actions.

After surviving a court-martial instigated by General Stuart, Jones was transferred from the Army of Northern Virginia to the Department of Southwest Virginia. There he protected the region's vital salt and lead mines, effectively cooperated with General Longstreet's extended expedition in East Tennessee, and threatened the Union hold on vital points like Cumberland Gap. In addition to justly raising the stature of Jones to a major figure in the 1863-64 campaigning in this comparatively isolated region, Ballard's narrative provides blow-by-blow accounts of a number of obscure clashes (including the November 5-6, 1863 expedition to Rogersville; the January 3, 1864 Battle of Jonesville; and the February 22, 1864 Battle of Wyerman's Mill).

Finally, the book devotes an appropriate level of detail and attention to the Battle of Piedmont, noting along the way its clouding effect on the historical legacy and memory of General Jones. At the time, some were critical of Jones for leaving behind a prepared defensive position at Mowery's Hill and rashly moving forward to engage General Hunter's federal army at Piedmont. However, in defense of Jones, strong enemy forces were converging on the Upper Shenandoah, and the author advances a persuasive argument for the need to strike one of the enemy columns quickly before their combination might easily crush the outnumbered Confederates. Far less justifiable than the decision to fight at Piedmont was the massive gap that Jones inexplicably left in the center of his line. This tactical blunder on the part of Jones directly led to the collapse of his army and his own death while attempting to stem the rout. Without diminishing Jones's overall responsibility for the defeat, Ballard does fittingly suggest that initiative-challenged generals John C. Vaughn and John D. Imboden should share at least some of the blame for the catastrophic result. With Union forces pouring into the center's open void in full view of both men, neither came to the aid of Jones. It was a complete rout, and the author is almost certainly correct in deeming the Piedmont debacle the most crushing blow to the military legacy of Jones, who in death could not defend himself from his critics.

The few general complaints with the book revolve around issues of presentation. There are an inordinate number of typographical errors in the text, and the maps, while plentiful in number, are rather rudimentary in nature. Also, at least two of the battle maps are misdated with the wrong year.

In creating his narrative of the life and military career of Grumble Jones, Ballard did not have the benefit of a large collection of Jones papers. As we all know, this is not a unique impediment, and the author was successfully able to use other archival sources and a strong grasp of the existing literature to piece together a very solid study. William Edmondson "Grumble" Jones: The Life of a Cantankerous Confederate offers readers a meticulous recounting and valuable contextualization of the Civil War service of a significant yet largely neglected military figure.

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