Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Review of French - "PHANTOMS OF THE SOUTH FORK: Captain McNeill and His Rangers"

[Phantoms of the South Fork: Captain McNeill and His Rangers by Steve French (Kent State University Press, 2017). Hardcover, maps, photos, illustrations, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:239/320. ISBN:978-1-60635-309-7. $39.95]

Steve French's Phantoms of the South Fork is the first full study of the Civil War operations of John Hanson "Hanse" McNeill and his company of Confederate rangers to appear in the literature since Roger Delauter's slim H.E. Howard series volume published back in 1986. Initially recruited in September 1862 as a company of the 1st Virginia Partisan Rangers, Captain McNeill took advantage of the Partisan Ranger Act passed by the Confederate Congress earlier in the year, and in early 1863 he and his men embarked on an independent career that would last for the balance of the conflict. Though McNeill himself was mortally wounded in action near Meem's Bridge in October 1864, his young son Jesse took the reins and led the rangers through the end of the war. Between 1863 and 1865, McNeill's Rangers patrolled the oft contested Potomac Highlands, their area of operations roughly bounded by the Virginia-Maryland border to the north, the North Branch of the Potomac to the west, the town of Moorefield to the south, and the Cacapon River to the east. 

The great bulk of Phantoms is composed of author Steve French's descriptive accounts of the ranger outfit's many irregular missions conducted throughout the area indicated above. Incorporating firsthand military and civilian records from both sides, these chapters are detailed and well composed. A favorite target of the rangers was the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. During the second half of the war, McNeill's company regularly attacked B&O trestles, locomotives, cars, and armored trains, causing frequent disruption (albeit short lived) to that vital Union logistical artery. McNeill also exasperated Union military authorities by constantly attacking and inflicting heavy losses on federal patrols, foraging parties, and wagon trains. Though instances of direct collaboration with large bodies of fellow Confederate forces were infrequent, the rangers often fought alongside small detachments from regular cavalry regiments and at particular moments (ex. during the Gettysburg and 1864 Shenandoah campaigns) assumed an important role in screening the open western flank of major movements east of the mountains.

The book does a very good job of describing and highlighting the full range of military activities performed by the rangers, who proved remarkably adept at scouting, raiding, supply gathering, and ambushing enemy columns, all the while keeping their own casualties to a minimum. As one might expect, the volume offers a full account of the rangers's most celebrated wartime exploit, the February 1865 simultaneous nighttime capture and successful spiriting away of major generals Benjamin Kelley and George Crook right under the noses of the Union garrison at Cumberland. French also offers some interesting background information on McNeill. Many readers are likely unaware that the Virginia-born McNeill fought extensively with the Missouri State Guard in 1861 before being captured and incarcerated in St. Louis. In June 1862, he and his son Jesse managed to escape military prison and return home to Virginia to embark on their better-known partisan careers.

McNeill's high level of success as partisan chieftain invites favorable comparison with the much more famous John S. Mosby, and French builds a strong case in his book that the exploits of McNeill's Rangers ought to place them in the first rank of Confederate partisan units. In terms of leadership quality and achievements in the field there seems little to choose between the Mosby and McNeill ranger bands. Though Hanse himself was dead by the time the event occurred, one could argue that his rangers's capture of high-ranking generals Kelley and Crook was a far more significant and impressive feat than Mosby's much celebrated seizure of General Edwin Stoughton (similarly rousted from bed and taken captive) in March 1863. In addition to not dying during the war, Mosby clearly benefited from better press and his association with Jeb Stuart. He also was much closer to the eastern theater's center of gravity, operating in the rear of the Army of the Potomac and in the Shenandoah. All of these factors helped ensure that Mosby would have a leg up in the competitive arena of historical memory.

Given the current scholarship's generally negative portrait of the irregular war and its practitioners, an appropriate question to ask is whether McNeill's Rangers more hindered or helped the Confederate cause. The Partisan Ranger Act was always controversial. Many professional officers believed that the legislation would lead to lawlessness on the home front and demoralization in the conventional service, dual fears that all too often were realized in full. Citing the freedom from army discipline and independence of partisan commands as encouraging regular soldiers to desert, there were determined attempts by General Thomas Rosser and others to disband McNeill's command, all of which failed because they lacked ultimate approval from the War Department. Robert E. Lee himself seemed to be of two minds when it came to McNeill, directly praising the ranger's accomplishments while condemning partisan warfare in general. Though such small bands could never damage enemy-controlled infrastructure for long periods of time, McNeill's Rangers did force B&O authorities to expend a great deal of resources in repairing damage and drew to rail defense large numbers of enemy troops that could have been put to good use elsewhere. As the book well demonstrates, during the conflict the rangers killed, wounded, or captured many times their own number of enemy soldiers. They also acquired large quantities of badly needed arms, accoutrements, wagons, horses, and livestock, much of which they turned over to Confederate authorities. Their sheep and cattle transfers did much to feed otherwise supply-challenged regular Confederate forces in the Shenandoah. While the presence of the rangers may have tempted other fighting men to escape regular service, French's study offers little evidence that the rangers did much to alienate the local population from supporting the Confederate cause. On balance, it appears that McNeill and his men were uncommon exemplars of Partisan Ranger Act intentions.

There are a few complaints with the book. The maps in Phantoms are adequate in portraying the extent of McNeill's reach and the major geographical points within his primary stomping grounds, but it would have been helpful if additional smaller scale maps depicting particular operations had been included. To be fair, there is a raid map for the Kelley-Crook nabbing along with a pair of archival sketches that are difficult to read (as so often is the case with hand-drawn map reproductions resized to fit on the printed page). The book also ends rather abruptly, and it could have used a concluding chapter that brings everything together in terms of assessing the effectiveness of the rangers and their overall impact on the course of the war in the region (and perhaps beyond).

Given the environment's critical role in any irregular war, a more detailed examination of the region's topography might also have been in order. In the Potomac Highlands, there were adequate farm lands available to support the guerrillas with food but also more than enough wilderness to provide necessary cover and shelter. The region's gaps, mountains, valleys, forests, and vegetation comprised perfect terrain for small-unit hit and run attacks, and this natural environment undoubtedly represented a key factor behind the success of the rangers.

The book is chiefly concerned with the military impact of McNeill's Rangers, so what happened to civilians when the guerrillas weren't present is mostly beyond the scope of the work. Given the mixed loyalties of the Highlands population living along the borderland between Virginia and what would become West Virginia, there existed great potential for a volatile combination of revenge and reprisal. The book does certainly describe several isolated incidents of robbery, abuse, and murder, but the reader does not on the whole gain a sense of how Potomac Highlands society fared in comparison to other guerrilla-infested border regions, many of which have been subjected to extensive modern study and analysis.

Phantoms of the South Fork is another great addition to Kent State's uniformly excellent Civil War Soldiers and Strategies series. Steve French's through documentation of the wartime exploits of McNeill's Rangers appropriately raises the historical stature and significance of the unit to levels on par with more celebrated Confederate partisan bands, such as Mosby's Rangers. Beyond its substantial value as a biographical treatment of John Hanson McNeill and its assumption of the role of new standard work on the topic of McNeill's Rangers, the volume also serves as a useful military record of the Civil War years in the rugged Potomac Highlands. Recommended.


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