Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Booknotes: James Montgomery

New Arrival:
James Montgomery: Abolitionist Warrior by Robert C. Conner (Casemate, 2022).

Joined by James Lane and Charles "Doc" Jennison, James Montgomery completes the trio of most prominent, and infamous, Kansas Jayhawkers who transitioned into Civil War officers of considerable rank and responsibility. Given his status as close Lincoln associate and US senator, Lane gets the most attention by far. Back in the mid-2000s, two Lane bios appeared (here and here) as well as a good history of the Lane Brigade. I've yet to come across a Jennison biography, but there is a well-received history of the regiment he raised (see Stephen Starr's 1974 book Jennison's Jayhawkers). With the publication of Robert Conner's James Montgomery: Abolitionist Warrior, we now have the first full-length biography of the third member of the Jayhawker triumvirate.

From the description: "James Montgomery was a leader of the free-state movement in pre-Civil War Kansas and Missouri, associated with its direct-action military wing. He then joined the Union Army and fought through most of the war. A close associate and ally of other abolitionists including John Brown, Harriet Tubman, Colonels Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Robert G. Shaw, Montgomery led his African-American regiment along with Tubman and other civilians in the 1863 Combahee River raid, which freed almost 800 slaves from South Carolina plantations. He then commanded a brigade in the siege of Fort Wagner, near Charleston." You might recall the very negative portrayal of Montgomery's character, leadership, and treatment of his men in the movie Glory.

In 1864, Montgomery led troops on both the eastern and western fringes of the conflict. More from the description: "In 1864, still in brigade command, he fought at the Battle of Olustee in Florida, helping prevent the collapse and disintegration of Union General Truman Seymour’s army. Later that year he returned home and played a significant role in defeating Confederate General Sterling Price’s great raid, especially at the Battle of Westport."

I thought I had a copy of Conner's other Civil War biography, 2013's General Gordon Granger: The Savior of Chickamauga and the Man Behind "Juneteenth" , but it looks like I am mistaken on that. The bibliography in this one isn't exhaustive in nature, but that doesn't mean the book won't have anything valuable to say about Montgomery (and it is the only game in town when it comes to Montgomery's life and pretty extensive Civil War career). As Conner notes, Montgomery "was and remains a controversial figure." As part of that conversation, James Montgomery: Abolitionist Warrior "uncovers and deals honestly with his serious flaws, while debunking some wilder charges, and also bringing to light his considerable attributes and achievements. Montgomery’s life, from birth to death, is seen in the necessary perspective and clear delineation of the complex racial, political and military history of the Civil War era." I am interested in reading Conner's take on these topics and will give this one a whirl.

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