Thursday, February 14, 2019

Review - "Thomas W. Knox: Civil War Correspondent in Missouri" by Robert Schultz

[THOMAS W. KNOX: Civil War Correspondent in Missouri edited by Robert G. Schultz (Camp Pope Publishing, 2018). Softcover, maps, photos, drawings, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xxii,411/584. ISBN:978-1-929919-85-7. $27.50]

Thomas W. Knox: Civil War Correspondent in Missouri
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A native of New Hampshire, young Thomas Wallace Knox was a teacher before embarking on a journalism career, first in Boston then out west in gold rush Colorado. With war clouds emerging from the bitter 1860 election, he quickly abandoned frontier pursuits and traveled back east, passing along the way through troubled Missouri. In New York, he met with James Gordon Bennett, editor of the influential New York Herald newspaper, and was assigned by Bennett in spring 1861 to report on developing events in Missouri. Knox would travel with Union military forces in person but also report extensively from several prominent communication hubs (ex. Rolla and St. Louis, particularly the latter). Collected and edited by Robert Schultz under the title Thomas W. Knox: Civil War Correspondent in Missouri, Knox's Herald articles offer today's readers a unique bounty of highly detailed reports of the 1861-62 fighting that escalated across the entire breadth of Missouri and into northwest Arkansas.

Though Knox's newspaper correspondence written during the first twelve months of the war addresses many topics and impressively fills hundreds of pages in Schultz's book, the most significant contributions are arguably those falling on the military side of things. Along this line, Knox's extensive coverage of General Nathaniel Lyon's campaign to secure Missouri and his detailed description of General Samuel R. Curtis's winter campaign in the Ozarks are particularly noteworthy. Knox accompanied both of these critically important expeditions in the field and apparently had free access to each commander. His initial account of Pea Ridge, a sweeping collection of vividly written first-hand observations of the battle and its aftermath, is arguably the book's most remarkable single report.

Knox's Herald articles suggest that he developed a close friendship with Lyon in Missouri. Unfortunately for us, such writings intended for a very public audience don't disclose much in the way of private insights into the personality of one of the war's most enigmatic generals. What does become clear is that Knox's Lyon is not presented as the ideological extremist that many observers believe him to have been. It's possible that Knox intentionally softened for public consumption his written portrayal of the general's persona  (ex. his account of the famous Planter's House Hotel meeting with Governor Jackson and Sterling Price omits mention of the general's most apocalyptic rhetoric), but it's perhaps just as likely that he simply didn't see Lyon that way.

While most of Knox's journalistic attentions were focused on military affairs, he did frequently comment on other matters. With the situation in Missouri very much in flux over the first year of the war, Knox can be forgiven for being a bit alarmist regarding the size, influence, and alleged plotting activities of St. Louis's secessionist population. His detailed observations of the military and political prisons in the city are valuable contributions to the historical record, though his statements regarding overgenerous treatment of the incarcerated need to be taken with a grain of salt. Knox's field reports are also occasionally colored by common eastern prejudices toward western frontier culture, manners, and mode of dress.

In keeping with the intensely partisan journalistic practices of the period, Knox paints starkly contrasting portraits of the pro-Union and pro-secession elements of Missouri's population. His oft-repeated contention that Missouri's Unionists acted with universal benevolence while the secessionists repaid such undeserved kindness with a litany of violence and abuse is ludicrous in retrospect but served well the partisan prejudices of his reading audience. In his reports, Knox strongly supported measures designed by Union authorities to punish those suspected of being secessionists by making them pay (through heavy monetary assessments and personal bonds) for the property losses of Unionists and for refugee services. His constant assaults on the character of enemy military and political leaders are, however, sometimes leavened with humor. For instance, while discussing Missouri State Guard commander Sterling Price's vulnerable position at Lexington in September 1861, Knox writes that "only the most powerful anti-laxatives will save him" (pg. 198), an obvious reference to the debilitating bowel troubles the Price experienced earlier that summer.

As mentioned above, Knox considered himself a friend of General Lyon, but he also seems to have made a concerted effort to bolster support for all members of the department's high command. While he might have been expected to do so, Knox did not join in the outcry against General Fremont for not provided Lyon with enough reinforcements to hold the army's position in SW Missouri. Unlike so many other journalists and war correspondents who relished active participation in factional wars fought among and between military and civilian officials, Knox mostly avoided them. When assessing the command tenures of generals Lyon, Halleck, Sigel, and Fremont, Knox typically published positive, and sometimes glowing, reports. While his support for Fremont was eroded by the general's determined isolation from the public and the increasing allegations of criminal misconduct within the quartermaster department in Missouri, Knox nevertheless criticized the decision to sack the general mid-campaign in the fall of 1861. The reporter's gushing praise of Franz Sigel's martial abilities, and sympathy with Sigel's unseemly squabbling over rank and credit, will perhaps surprise modern readers possessing better information of the general's overall war record. Though he accompanied the Army of the Southwest in the field, Knox did not claim the same type of close relationship with General Curtis that he had earlier with General Lyon, and his reports unfortunately offer little commentary regarding the victor of Pea Ridge.

Adding significant value of their own, Robert Schultz's editing activities go far beyond simply compiling the Knox newspaper reports for publication. His chapter introductions and supplemental narrative throughout offer useful historical background and context. In both text and notes, Schultz also helpfully points out Knox's factual errors and judiciously critiques the reporter's more questionable interpretations of events. In addition to fulfilling their typical role, the footnotes also contain much in the way of additional Knox material that the editor apparently felt would have disrupted the flow of the main text. Though infrequent, other sources (both outside ones and Knox's own wartime memoir Camp-Fire and Cotton-Field) are incorporated into the discussion as well. At the back of the book, a forty-page appendix section contains another collection of supporting documents, most of which are a variety of official military and civilian proclamations from both sides.

Though Knox would go on to witness other fighting fronts (and get into trouble with General Sherman), one could make the argument that his series of voluminous writings produced over the first twelve months of the war comprise his most significant contribution to the Civil War historiography. This proverbial 'first draft of history' collected and edited by Robert Schultz in Thomas W. Knox: Civil War Correspondent in Missouri is highly recommended reading, most particularly for dedicated students of the early war period in Missouri and Arkansas. Though Knox's writings have never been lost to history, he doesn't rank among the best-known Civil War journalists, and both editor and publisher deserve high praise for bringing the entirety of Knox's valuable Trans-Mississippi reportage to print for the first time.

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