Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Booknotes: Unhonored Service

New Arrival:
Unhonored Service: The Life of Lee's Senior Cavalry Commander, Colonel Thomas Taylor Munford, CSA by Sheridan R. Barringer (Fox Run Pub, 2022).

Beginning in my early teen years I spent a lot of time collecting and playing both board and computer wargames, and my introduction to many Civil War officers and generals was through them rather than books. One sim that became a favorite gave me my first impression of Col. Thomas Munford, and it was a confusing one. Through what was surely a mistake, the designer assigned an armament to Munford's command, and to no other unit on either side, that made it utterly useless given the system and scale of the game. Nevertheless, I loved the game and played it to death, and to teenager me Munford was just that guy that led useless cavalry. Gradually, more serious reading revealed that Munford was a useful officer after all, often entrusted with commands larger than his rank typically handled. Then the question arises as to why, in an army full of its share of prideful men who could be hard to get along with, Munford never got promoted above the rank of colonel. Undoubtedly, all will be revealed in Sheridan Barringer's impressive-looking biography Unhonored Service: The Life of Lee's Senior Cavalry Commander, Colonel Thomas Taylor Munford, CSA.

Eric Wittenberg, who knows a thing or two about Union and Confederate cavalry in the eastern theater, declares in his introduction to this volume that the VMI-educated Munford was "an extremely talented commander of horse." He goes on to note that Munford frequently led brigades and sometimes even a division when called upon to do so. On the less than admirable side of things, Munford also engaged in a running feud with general (and JEB Stuart favorite) Thomas Rosser. According to Wittenberg, the interpersonal clash between Munford and Rosser "caused significant problems with field operations," and that unsavory aspect of Munford's service will undoubtedly be illuminated at length in this book. Wittenberg also notes that Munford was, until now, the highest-ranking ANV cavalry officer not to have a full biography. Author Sheridan Barringer, now the biographer of both men, is perhaps uniquely placed to provide us with the clearest and most objective characterization of the conflict between Munford and Rosser.

The heart of the book is a very detailed account of Munford's extensive Civil War career, which seems to have involved in some way or another nearly every major campaign from First Bull Run through Appomattox. The book description offers the opinion that Munford was "the most senior, and likely the most important, cavalry colonel in Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia." In his research Barringer consulted a large body of published and unpublished sources, and his narrative (which is supported by 17 maps) is also peppered with numerous lengthy excerpts from Munford's own writings. Those passages recount Munford's personal experiences of many campaigns and provide "insight into important officers within the cavalry corps of the Army of Northern Virginia." Barringer believes that Munford's lack of a West Point background "contributed to his being overlooked repeatedly for promotion to brigadier general, despite having commanded Fitzhugh Lee's brigade in some of the war's most important battles and commanding a division at the end of the war."

The extensive military biography portion of the book is bookended by similarly substantial coverage of Munford's life before and after the war. The first three chapters address his early life, his education at VMI, and his eventual purchase of a large plantation below the Blue Ridge Mountains. Postwar chapters address his farm and business ventures, his renewed involvement with VMI, and his move late in life to Alabama (where he died in 1918 at the age of 86). If a deep study of Col. Thomas Taylor Munford and his place in the inner workings of the ANV's cavalry arm throughout the war is what you're seeking, initial impressions certainly suggest that this is the book for you.

2 comments:

  1. Hello
    Thanks for posting the information on this biography. I've been anxiously awaiting its release. Reading your blurb on the book, you mentioned that Eric Wittenberg stated that Munford until now was the highest ranking ANV cavalry leader who didn't have a full biography. I'm interested in the ANV cavalry leadership. However, I wasn't aware that Brig. Gen. John R. Chambliss and Maj. Gen. Lunsford Lomax had been the subject of biographies?
    Are your familiar with these?

    Thanks
    Don H.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Don,
      It's possible he meant to word it a different way. I don't know.

      Delete

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