Thursday, March 15, 2018

Review of Thomas - "WADE HAMPTON'S IRON SCOUTS: Confederate Special Forces"

[Wade Hampton's Iron Scouts: Confederate Special Forces by D. Michael Thomas (Arcadia Publishing & The History Press, 2018). Softcover, maps, photos, drawings, roster, notes, bibliography, index. 143 pages. ISBN:978-1-4671-3938-0. $21.99]

The lop-sided nature of the Confederate victory at Fredericksburg overshadowed the fact that the Army of the Potomac had dangerously stolen a march on its opposite number during the early stages of the campaign, and Robert E. Lee joined his cavalry chief J.E.B. Stuart in vowing that an intelligence failure of that magnitude would not be repeated. The debilitating disease that swept through the Army of Northern Virginia's horses that November would not be used as an acceptable one-time excuse for the oversight, and the generals worked together to create a new elite scouting force that would operate behind enemy lines on a permanent basis. These scouts would be largely drawn from Wade Hampton's first command and would be known by various unofficial names, with their frustrated Union enemies going so far as to call them the "iron scouts." Unfortunately for the readers and scholars of today, documentary evidence of both the unit's creation and its many operations is fragmentary. However, author D. Michael Thomas has assembled more than enough information to coherently form the first full history of the scouts in his book Wade Hampton's Iron Scouts: Confederate Special Forces.

Getting men permanently detached from their regiments for special duty was always difficult, but Hampton's group of picked men was also intentionally small. There were rarely more than twenty men in the field at any one time, with particular missions employing anywhere from a pair of scouts to around a dozen men. Operating on a rotational basis and taking advantage of pre-screened local civilian networks for shelter and food, the scouts had an influence and effectiveness that far exceeded their tiny size. According to the author, their "primary mission was to gather and report information on the enemy, particularly regarding troop dispositions, concentrations, sudden changes, or movements." (Pg. 24). They would also be charged with selecting the best targets for raids and were generally engaged in all elements of irregular outpost war (i.e. capturing pickets, shadowing enemy movements, ambushing small detachments, and more of the like). Examples of their performances of all these tasks are vividly documented in the text. The Hampton scouts were not entirely unique (some readers will undoubtedly wonder why South Carolinians—the bulk of those recruited—were specially detailed behind enemy lines in Virginia!), and Fitz Lee formed a similar unit, but available records and documents related to Lee's scouts are apparently even more sparse.

As numerous instances described in the text show, between the beginning of 1863 and the end of the war the scouts were instrumental in the early detection of major Union movements in north and central Virginia. Accurate intelligence regarding the size and direction of these advances were critically important to Robert E. Lee's reactions, and the scouts came through with flying colors on multiple occasions, along the way earning from Lee frequent praised mention in official reports and correspondence. The job was certainly dangerous in the extreme, and as time went on and enemy awareness of their existence expanded more and more scouts would be killed or captured.

When the war shifted from central Virginia to below the James River, the scouts further demonstrated their remarkable adaptability, almost instantly adjusting to the region's different military topography and unfamiliar civilian population. Their behind the lines operations did not skip a beat. Some of the scouts also went to North Carolina in 1865, providing the same valuable intelligence gathering and petite guerre services against Sherman's rapidly approaching Union host.

Where possible, the author also provides information about which individual scouts were involved in each operation described in the book. He profiles the two most prominent scout leaders, William Mickler (the first man assigned to head the unit) and George Shadburne, arguing strongly that the latter's leadership role in the famous Beefsteak Raid (perhaps the scouts' most celebrated exploit) meant that his career as a whole would unfairly overshadow Mickler's. Thomas also effectively dispels the assertion (apparently commonly found in the writings of others) that the scouts frequently donned Union uniforms in the field. While frustrated Union commanders repeatedly threatened the scouts with execution as guerrillas, captured scouts were rarely mistreated and the author found no evidence that a scout was ever captured wearing an enemy uniform.

Seventy-two soldiers served in the ranks of Hampton's scouts over the 2+ years of their existence, and Thomas's study also contains an impressive biographical roster of these men. Pieced together from "Compiled Service Records, family histories, newspaper accounts, obituaries, census records, findagrave.com, postwar books and magazine articles," the book's `Annotated Roster of Hampton's Scouts´ generally exhibits a good-sized paragraph or more of information for each man and should be an invaluable reference tool for future use.

Applying very modern terms like "special forces" to fighting men of more distant history like the scouts is often frowned upon with good reason, but Thomas's descriptions of the organization, range of missions, and tactics employed by Hampton's men do seem to invite favorable comparison. In researching and writing Wade Hampton's Iron Scouts, D. Michael Thomas has done a commendable job of compiling and interpreting all the fragments of information available about the scouts and their wartime exploits, filling in many gaps and assembling the whole into a useful narrative. In this study the Hampton scouts have their first full history and first truly comprehensive appreciation of their outsized accomplishments.

1 comment:

  1. At last, an author who took the time and effort to research the true history of this unit of Christian Confederate Soldiers. Kudos to D. Michael Thomas for his labor and keen desire to let the truth be known.

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