Sunday, July 25, 2021

Booknotes: A Notable Bully

New Arrival:
A Notable Bully: Colonel Billy Wilson, Masculinity, and the Pursuit of Violence in the Civil War Era by Robert E. Cray (Kent St UP, 2021).

With a name as indistinctive as Billy Wilson I suppose it is very easy to encounter it more than once somewhere and not have it stick. It doesn't ring any clear bells with me; however, according to his new biographer Robert Cray (not Strong Persuader Robert Cray), Wilson was a very prominent New York figure for much of the mid-nineteenth century. From the description of Cray's A Notable Bully: "Largely forgotten by historians, Billy Wilson (1822–1874) was a giant in his time, a man well known throughout New York City, a man shaped by the city’s immigrant culture, its harsh voting practices, and its efforts to participate in the War for the Union. For decades, Wilson’s name made headlines―for many different reasons―in the city’s major newspapers."

As the subtitle suggests, violence was a major part of Wilson's persona and public life. "An immigrant who settled in New York in 1842, Wilson found work as a prizefighter, a shoulder hitter, an immigrant runner, and a pawnbroker, before finally entering politics and being elected an alderman." With so many Zouave companies and regiments raised by both sides, it would be unfair to generalize as to their nature, but a number of prominent units contributed to an outward impression that they attracting a certain class of undesirables who resisted discipline more than the typical Civil War volunteer regiment. Unlike some leaders (Louisiana's Roberdeau Wheat being one) who could effectively channel that volatility on and off the battlefield into military usefulness, Wilson was a poor candidate for such a tall task. More from the description: "He harnessed his tough persona to good advantage, in 1861 becoming a colonel in command of a regiment of alleged toughs and ex-convicts known as the “Wilson Zouaves.” A poor disciplinarian, however, Wilson exercised little control over his soldiers, and in 1863, unable to maintain order, he was jailed for a number of weeks. Nonetheless, Wilson returned home to a hero’s welcome that year."

Many Civil War-era figures make it hard on potential biographers. "Wilson left behind no personal papers, journals, or correspondences, so Robert E. Cray has masterfully woven together a record of Wilson’s life using the only available records: newspaper stories." Though one might imagine the ways in which reliance on newspaper stories can present problems of their own, you work with what you have, and "(t)hese accounts present Wilson as a fascinating but highly unlikable man. As Cray demonstrates, Wilson bullied his way into New York, bullied his way into fame and politics, and attempted to bully his way into military greatness. The book should have a lot of crossover appeal for those interested in Wilson himself, Civil War history, midcentury New York City immigrant politics and culture, and Civil War-era political violence.

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