Thursday, May 27, 2021

Review - "John P. Slough: The Forgotten Civil War General" by Richard Miller

[John P. Slough: The Forgotten Civil War General by Richard L. Miller (University of New Mexico Press, 2021). Cloth, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xv,226/304. ISBN:978-0-8263-6219-3. $34.95]

On the face of it, Brigadier General John Potts Slough isn't the kind of Civil War general that typically draws much interest and attention from modern biographers. He was not a key figure in any large, well-known battle that altered the course of the war, and the vast majority of his time in Union service was spent administering a rear area occupation district (albeit an important one adjacent to the nation's capital). Nevertheless, the totality of Slough's military and civilian public service during his short and turbulent life, as recounted in Richard Miller's new biography John P. Slough: The Forgotten Civil War General, does merit remembrance and appreciation of the small but significant leadership role the man played in many different episodes of mid-nineteenth century U.S. history.

As Slough remains a relatively obscure player in the national drama before, during, and after the Civil War, it might help to briefly summarize his life for those who are unfamiliar with him. Making his home in Cincinnati, Ohio, John Slough's family, professional (he was a successful lawyer), and social connections propelled him into state politics. In the Ohio General Assembly his conservative Democratic views clashed with those of the rising Republican influence in the state, and his uncontrolled emotional volatility led to expulsion from that legislative body after Slough physically assaulted an abolitionist colleague. Failing to regain a seat during an ensuing special election and conceding the end of his Ohio political career, Slough sought opportunity elsewhere in 1857 Kansas. There the Douglas loyalist opposed the proslavery Lecompton constitution and was a leader of the Democratic minority during the contentious Wyandotte constitutional convention. Though the uncompromising Republican majority thwarted Slough and his fellow Democrats at every turn, Miller does credit Slough for being an important figure in Kansas statehood through his leadership participation in the constitutional process. Subsequently losing both Lieutenant Governor and hometown Leavenworth mayoral races, Slough once again put himself on the move to advance his economic and political fortunes, this time to frontier Denver in Colorado Territory. Once war broke out, the Colorado governor appointed Slough to lead the territory's first volunteer regiment, which he led to victory at Glorieta in March 1862. Resigning from the army soon after, Slough was immediately back in service with a promotion to brigadier general and a posting to Harpers Ferry in Virginia, where his brigade briefly opposed a Confederate demonstration on the town's defenses during Stonewall Jackson's famous Valley Campaign. Resigning yet again, this time after failing to get the division command he felt he deserved, Slough also reentered service once again. This final reentry into the war would last for the duration, and Slough ended up being the military governor of Alexandria and district commander there for nearly three years. Slough cleaned up the city, rigidly enforced discipline, guarded the district's lines of communication from attack, and attempted to adequately care for Alexandria's burgeoning black refugee population. After the war, Slough tried and failed to obtain the territorial governor post of New Mexico, settling in January 1866 for the Johnson administration appointment as Chief Justice of the New Mexico Territorial Supreme Court. Undone there by a combination of his own abrasive (even abusive) personal and professional conduct along with the territory's virulently partisan political scene, Slough was murdered in 1867 by a Republican official he had previously showered with defamatory language in a local Santa Fe hotel.

As mentioned above, while Slough did not lead troops during any big battles fought in any of the war's major theaters, forces under his command did achieve a small but significant victory in the climactic contest of the New Mexico Campaign. One enduring question regarding Slough's Civil War service is why he abruptly resigned his commission so soon after the Union expulsion of all Confederate forces from New Mexico, of which Slough played a significant part through his strategic victory at Glorieta. An alleged martinet who was aloof from all below him, Slough was generally disliked by both the men in the ranks and fellow officers who angled for his job. Though through his being in overall command he received proper credit officially for the Glorieta victory, the main force Slough led in person at Pigeon Ranch was tactically outfought and yielded the field to the Confederates, and it was Major John Chivington's flank march and destruction of the enemy supply train at Johnson's Ranch (of which others later claimed credit for planning and execution) that transformed the battle into a clear Union victory. It has been suggested that Slough resigned because he feared being court-martialed for leaving Fort Union vulnerable (he was ordered to keep it secure at all costs but instead marched most of the garrison away to fight). Newspapers conjectured that he left the army because he felt there were few remaining opportunities in the territory for military glory and ambitiously sought it elsewhere. Slough himself later said that he resigned out of fear of assassination by his enemies within his command. The author's belief that a combination of factors was involved in the decision, with military ambition ranking among the highest, is a prudent reading of the available evidence.

Why a successful officer who resigned from the army would almost immediately be promoted is another question with no easy answer. Slough's relationship with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton is one of the biography's more interesting through stories. Miller conjectures that Slough's wife, who was a niece of deceased U.S. Supreme Court justice and Stanton friend John McLean, might have exerted influence in obtaining her husband's promotion recommendation from the War Department. It might seem like a tenuous connection, but one can argue that other officers received wartime plums through even thinner networking threads. According to the author, Slough developed a friendly relationship with Stanton during the general's time in Alexandria, and he certainly came through with Stanton-approved guilty votes during the Fitz John Porter and William Hammond court martial proceedings, both cases of which were thought by disinterested observers to be almost sure acquittals based on evidence presented. It's unclear why the author believes as strongly as he does that the timing of Stanton's renewed recommendation in late December 1862 (which would have been mid-trial in the Porter case) for Senate confirmation of Slough's promotion discounts suggestion of quid pro quo, but he does go on to say that Slough's own consideration of the value of Stanton's "good will" may well have played a factor in his guilty vote.

Much of the book is spent recounting Slough's long tenure as district commander headquartered in Alexandria. The town was a dirty and disordered place before Slough's arrival, overrun with intoxicated soldiers and criminal activity while also suffering from the onset of a very serious refugee problem. The author documents thoroughly and well the general's successful efforts at cleaning up the town, dealing with pro-secessionist elements, managing the district's defenses, and addressing the always challenging problem of adequately housing, feeding, and employing the large influx of freedpeople into an already crowded city. Slough's management was accompanied by his typically abrasive manner (even his supporters found him "haughty & curt"), and his determination to end illegal liquor sales made him many enemies who constantly schemed to have him removed. Northern abolitionist aid workers, chief among them Julia Wilbur, also routinely challenged his authority and complained about his treatment, inadequate in their view, of black refugees. Such complaints eventually led to a Joint Committee on the Conduct of War investigation (which did not always go well for Democratic officers like Slough), but its February 1864 findings exonerated Slough of all charges of corruption and refugee abuse. Getting back to the Stanton relationship, Slough was unable to leverage his friendship with the Secretary of War in order to obtain an active field command and threatened resignation for the third time if he did not get his way. Miller persuasively interprets Stanton's studied refusal as a product of sound evaluation of Slough's strengths and weaknesses as a military officer.

In assessing Slough's performance as Chief Justice of territorial New Mexico's Supreme Court, Miller points to some notable achievements. Citing further involuntary servitude as incompatible with recent abolition of slavery in the nation, Slough struck down the territory's practice of debt peonage, which had been a tradition among nuevomexicanos since the Spanish colonial period. In 1867, he came down with another locally controversial decision in recognizing Pueblo Indians as U.S. citizens. Both decisions made him deeply unpopular among many segments of the population. Those who benefited from the peonage system cursed Slough as did the Republican opposition who feared how Pueblo votes might affect upcoming elections. The poorer non-Anglo citizens of New Mexico also found fault with Slough for his frequent derogatory comments about their culture and society. Additionally, the many individuals from jurors to litigants to officers of the court who suffered under Slough's intemperate exercise of power during court proceedings had grievances of their own. There is little wonder that  amid the frequent violence and lawlessness of frontier society a man of Slough's offending nature might meet a violent end.

In addition to documenting the life of a man with notable political, judicial, and military achievements to his record, Richard Miller's biography of John Slough is also framed by elements of a celebrated nineteenth-century American life narrative, wherein a wandering man of drive, talent, and ambition grasps opportunity and attains some measure of elevated stature and accomplishment. Though others had more humble origins, Slough was an individual with no prior military background or experience who nevertheless rose to the rank of brigadier general and achieved success along the way. Slough's existence until his untimely death at the age of 38 was also one of constant geographical movement. When opportunities for personal advancement (economic, political, and otherwise) dried up in one place, there was always someplace else of notable promise, often further west, where one could go to start anew. That classic portrait of American life and myth is vividly reproduced through Miller's recounting of Slough's meandering westward path from Ohio to Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico. This fascinating biography is highly recommended.

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