Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Review - "'An Arch Rebel Like Myself': Dan Showalter and the Civil War in California and Texas" by Armistead & Arconti

["An Arch Rebel Like Myself": Dan Showalter and the Civil War in California and Texas
by Gene C. Armistead and Robert D. Arconti (McFarland, 2018). Softcover, maps, photos, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:x,181/246. ISBN:978-1-4766-7461-2. $39.95]

Like many of his fellow opportunity-seeking countrymen, Pennsylvania's Daniel Showalter undertook the arduous journey to California in 1852 with hopes of striking it rich in the gold fields. He settled in Mariposa County, and eight years later was elected to represent his fellow citizens in the State Assembly. Despite his northern birth, Showalter aligned himself politically with Southern Democrats and played an active role in the intensely partisan three-party legislative debates that occurred during the weeks leading up to the outbreak of Civil War. He also holds the historical distinction, if you can call it that, of fighting California's last political duel, when on May 25, 1861 he shot and killed fellow Democrat Charles Piercy. When it became clear that California would remain solidly pro-Union, Showalter determined to leave the state for Confederate territory. However, his traveling party was intercepted at the state border, and Showalter would be incarcerated for five months. Upon release he once again set out for Texas, where he finally obtained a field grade officer commission in the Confederate Army's 4th Cavalry Regiment of the Arizona Brigade. His 1863-65 Civil War service consisted mostly of protecting the northern frontier in 1863 and repelling various Union incursions along the state's Gulf and international borders during the balance of the conflict. While his military career was rather distinguished, Showalter's life ended in 1866 in ignominious fashion, when he died from tetanus after being seriously wounded in a drunken confrontation in a Mexican bar. His historically significant and largely untold life story is examined for the first time in comprehensive fashion in Gene Armistead and Robert Arconti's "An Arch Rebel Like Myself": Dan Showalter and the Civil War in California and Texas.

As is often the case when researching Civil War figures, the authors weren't gifted with a biographical subject who left behind an abundance of primary source material. Showalter died fairly young at the age of 35 and little in the way of his personal papers have been discovered beyond a few letters. Most of the available documentation is related to his official duties as California State Assemblyman and as a Confederate officer during the last half of the war. Therefore, it's not too surprising that the bulk of Armistead and Arconti's narrative concentrates on those two facets of Showalter's life. The authors do a fine job of filling in gaps with information gleaned from other sources, offering reasoned speculation on Showalter's likely activities during the frustratingly frequent periods of time when primary evidence is almost entirely absent (ex. during much of Showalter's 1863 military service in North Texas and Indian Territory).

The 1861 session of the State Assembly would not be remembered fondly in the annals of California legislative history. Partisan rancor meant that it would take well over 100 ballots just to chose a Speaker, and party wrangling between Republicans, Douglas Democrats, and Breckinridge Democrats over issues as small as the staffing of the state asylum meant that little was accomplished. In mid-April, Showalter was selected Speaker pro tem. Amid the heated atmosphere following the firing on Fort Sumter, Douglas Democrat Charles W. Piercy objected to Showalter's attempt to explain a vote before the assembly and, taking offense to Showalter's response, challenged the Breckinridge Democrat to a duel. Even the newspapers of the time noted the silliness of dueling over such an insignificant matter, but the event nevertheless took place and Showalter killed Piercy. With dueling illegal in the state, Showalter adopted a low profile to avoid prosecution. Both legislative session and duel are recounted at length in the book, with both sections constituting fresh contributions to the published record.

When the September 1861 election cycle went decisively for pro-Union candidates and his arrest as a duelist and prominent southern sympathizer seemed ever more likely, Showalter determined to flee the state. He joined a sizable band of like-minded individuals and set out to cross the southern deserts to Texas. Since Showalter was the group's most prominent member, he is often portrayed in the literature as the leader of the "Showalter Party," but the book persuasively argues that a man named Theodore Wilson was actually in charge. Richly detailed accounts of this and other Confederate odysseys from California that also meticulously reference the coordinated efforts by Union authorities to block their passage and arrest their members (a topic that very well might merit a book-length study of its own) are rarely found in the Civil War literature, so this section of the book constitutes a rather remarkable case study. Captured in November 1861, Showalter and the rest of the men were confined at Fort Yuma for several months (often at hard labor) before being released upon taking an oath of allegiance. In April 1862, Showalter was finally allowed to leave the state, and reached Texas by the end of the year after a long, arduous journey by land and sea.

Upon arrival in Texas, Showalter appears to have been attached to General John B. Magruder's staff as an aide, with a temporary rank of captain of artillery. Though official details are very sketchy, the book confirms that he played some role in the battles of Galveston and Sabine Pass in that provisional capacity. Showalter would eventually get a formal commission as Lieutenant Colonel of the aforementioned 4th Cavalry Regiment of the Arizona Brigade. With recruits coming from California, Missouri, and Texas and equipment in short supply, it took nearly a year for the unit to even approach a full complement of companies. However, circumstances would not wait, and Showalter was ordered to take a battalion of the 4th to North Texas in 1863, where they fought Union forces in Indian Territory and helped secure the border from Southern Plains Indian raids for the balance of that year. Unfortunately, as mentioned before, official documents and other sources associated with the 4th from this period are so scarce that only a vague outline of Showalter's activities can be pieced together, mostly by inference.

The source situation improves in 1864, when Showalter and his men were transferred to southern Texas to fight under Colonel John S. "Rip" Ford's command in the Rio Grande Valley. The book documents several small battles and skirmishes fought there, including actions at Rancho Las Rucias on June 25 and Brownsville on July 27. Showalter would become embroiled in controversy stemming from the September 6-7, 1864 fight at Palmito Ranch. According to some accounts, which often erroneously compressed the two days of fighting into a single day, Showalter was so incapacitated by drink that one of his subordinates, Lt. Col. George Giddings, was forced to relieve him of command and save the day. Though the authors find the drinking charges difficult to refute, the fact that Showalter was able to hold off a combined Union and Mexican Cortinista force that greatly outnumbered his own for most of two days seems to at least refute the notion that he was falling down drunk. According to the authors, claims from some writers that Giddings took over the battle are not credible. Unfortunately, no record has been left of the court-martial proceedings, or even the charges and specifications, just a vague statement from Ford's memoirs written decades after the war ended that Showalter was cleared. The 1865 Battle of Palmito Ranch greatly overshadows its predecessor, and this section of the book comprises a significant contribution to the historiography of the lesser-known first Battle of Palmito Ranch.

Though months passed with his official status in limbo, Showalter eventually returned to head the regiment once more and was with it when the 4th, like so many other Confederate Trans-Mississippi units, disbanded itself rather than formally surrender. Showalter chose exile in Mexico over returning to a California that very likely held no future for him. Settling in Mazatlan, he was mortally wounded in a hotel bar fracas in 1866.

In the end, Armistead and Arconti offer readers a judicious assessment of their subject's life and career. Evidence doesn't exist to paint a full portrait of Showalter's family life and personality, but the historical record uncovered by the authors seems to suggest that he was an able politician and competent military leader. While he was never really placed in a situation where he could shine as an independent commander, Showalter's abilities were respected by superiors and subordinates alike. On more than one occasion, commanders praised his regiment for its exceptional dependability (and similarly lamented its transfer elsewhere). Given the unit's overall effectiveness, it's also more than likely that Showalter was a proficient organizer and administrator amid the trying logistical conditions of the Trans-Mississippi West. It's also clear that he was a binge drinker. Though a bout of heavy drinking directly contributed to Showalter's death, the authors are of the opinion that alcohol use did not significantly impair his military judgment at any point during the war, with the 1864 incident at Palmito Ranch more likely occurring after the battle than during it (though we will perhaps never know the truth). The book builds a reasonable case that much of the existing historiography related to Showalter's alleged alcoholism is based on writers' uncritical acceptance of thin, secondhand evidence.

An issue that will undoubtedly figure prominently in the minds of readers is why did Showalter, a native Pennsylvanian who never resided in the South, support the Southern Democrat wing of the party and later join the Confederate Army. The authors raise a good point that his native Greene County, PA bordered Virginia (now West Virginia) on two sides and was heavily influenced by southern demographics and political culture. It was also one of the small minority of Pennsylvania Counties that went for McClellan in the 1864 presidential election. This environmental upbringing, combined with likely significant California associations with southern miners in Mariposa County, makes Showalter's ideological outlook, if still unusual, at least more understandable. What was behind his desire to actively serve in the Confederate Army, as opposed to just sitting out the conflict, can only be a topic of speculation.

With previous treatments of Showalter's life limited to a dated journal article and scattered published materials frequently rife with inaccuracies, Armistead and Arconti's modern book-length biography marks a vast improvement of affairs. Showalter was an important actor in California politics during the secession crisis and a significant military figure in Confederate Texas over the last half of the war, so his life certainly merits a deeper study of this kind. "An Arch Rebel Like Myself" effectively navigates the serious source constraints imposed upon its authors to become what might very well be the final word on the military and political careers of Daniel Showalter. Anyone interested in Civil War era California and Texas will greatly benefit from reading this fine biography.

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