Friday, February 15, 2019

Booknotes: Bluecoat and Pioneer

New Arrival:
Bluecoat and Pioneer: The Recollections of John Benton Hart, 1864–1868
  edited by John Hart (Univ of Okla Press, 2019).

"In 1918, urged on by his son Harry, John Benton Hart began to tell stories of a three-year period in his youth. He recalled his days as a trooper in the Eleventh Kansas Cavalry, fighting in Missouri and on the frontier, and his time as a civilian jack-of-all-trades doing risky work for the U.S. Army on the Wyoming-Montana Bozeman Trail in the middle of the Indian resistance campaign known as Red Cloud’s War. Once started, John Benton Hart became an enthusiastic raconteur, describing events with an almost cinematic vividness, while his son, an aspiring writer, documented his father’s testimony in what became several manuscripts." Compiled and edited by historian John Hart (John Benton Hart’s great-grandson) and published under the title Bluecoat and Pioneer: The Recollections of John Benton Hart, 1864–1868 "this memoir is a singular document of living history."

Hart enlisted in Col. Thomas Moonlight's 11th Kansas Volunteer Infantry in the fall of 1862 and fought with the regiment at the Battle of Prairie Grove that December, but the Civil War portion of his memoir does not start until late 1864, when he and his unit (which was converted into cavalry the prior year) opposed Confederate general Sterling Price's Missouri expedition. Hart's recollections of the fall 1864 campaign in Missouri are fairly extensive. 

From there, the memoir goes on to address the writer's participation in "such engagements in the Plains Indian Wars as the Battle of Platte Bridge in July 1865 and the Hayfield Fight near Fort C. F. Smith in 1867. In the engaging style of a natural storyteller, Hart re-creates these events as he experienced them, giving readers a rare glimpse at moments of historical import from the point of view of the “ordinary” soldier. In arresting detail, he also tells of crossing the Plains as a bullwhacker, carrying the mail between the beleaguered forts on the Bozeman Trail, and befriending scout Jim Bridger and Mountain Crow Chief Blackfoot."

Editor John Hart contributes an abundance of introductory sections and inserts connecting narrative throughout the volume. The text is supplemented by numerous maps and photographs as well as his "biographical, historical, and explanatory notes." In the general introduction, the editor mentions that he selected for inclusion in the book approximately one-third of the available material, a relatively common practice when editing large, sprawling manuscripts for publication. The only chapter reproduced in its entirety is the one covering the Platte Bridge battle (Chapter 2), and the book makes use of around half of Hart's Civil War Missouri text.

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