Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Review- "James Montgomery: Abolitionist Warrior" by Robert Conner

[James Montgomery: Abolitionist Warrior by Robert C. Conner (Casemate, 2022). Hardcover, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:x,183/220. ISBN:978-1-63624-142-5. $34.95]

Colonel James Montgomery's Civil War service followed a rather unusual path from infamous Kansas Jayhawker, to amphibious coastal raider, to conventional regimental and brigade-level battlefield commander. Though primarily focused on its subject's Civil War activities, Robert Conner's James Montgomery: Abolitionist Warrior is the first cradle to grave biography of this highly controversial Union officer.

Though a religion-based antislavery man of action who allied himself with like-thinking individuals such as John Brown in Kansas, Montgomery is presented by Conner as less extremist in his zealotry, disapproving of the most terroristic elements of Brown's actions. Nevertheless, during the Bleeding Kansas period and early months of the Civil War along the Missouri-Kansas border, Montgomery (who led the Third Regiment of James Lane's Kansas Brigade) oversaw numerous acts of lawless plunder as well as the killings of civilians and captured enemies. Conner frames those actions as indefensible reflections on Montgomery's character while also arguing that such acts of brutality should be contextually understood as part and parcel of the retributive violence all too frequently practiced by opposing Border War factions.

While not entirely convincing in his attempts made in the text to distance his subject from the Jayhawker movement's most infamous practitioners such as Lane and Charles Jennison, Conner does, especially in his discussion of Montgomery's 1863-64 leadership of black troops in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, convincingly portray his subject as having achieved a Civil War rarity in the form of accomplishing a successful transition from lawless raider to effective regimental leader and brigade commander. Positively cited in reports for his conduct in the field, Montgomery led the Second South Carolina on numerous coastal raids that damaged enemy infrastructure, seized or destroyed important war goods and supplies, and freed hundreds of slaves (many of whom would be incorporated into the army). While Conner praises Montgomery for no longer pursuing the worst acts of his earlier Border War fighting career (such as shooting prisoners), he does not shy away from condemning the 1863 destruction of Darien, Georgia as an inexcusable act of wanton destruction (though it was in line with his superior's wishes). On an additional note, on the matter of how Montgomery was depicted in the movie Glory, there is, according to Conner, no evidence that Montgomery shot or grossly mistreated his own men during that period. However, the author does cite an instance in which Montgomery had a soldier executed for desertion without involving any legal procedure.

It was in 1864 that the most creditable moments of Montgomery's Civil War career occurred. In his discussion of the Battle of Olustee, where Montgomery commanded a reserve brigade of two black regiments and fought a sharp rear-guard action in its final moments, Conner persuasively awards to Montgomery the lion's share of credit for the Union defeat not becoming a complete disaster. With his health impaired and no promotion forthcoming, Montgomery resigned and returned home to Kansas, only to reenter Union service during Confederate general Sterling Price's fall invasion of Missouri. Montgomery's hastily assembled Kansas militia regiment conducted itself with some distinction during the campaign's climactic battle at Westport, and its commander yet again received plaudits in official reports submitted by his superiors. While Montgomery's leadership roles in the all of the military actions referenced above are clearly delineated in the text, some assistance in the form of maps (there are none) would have been very helpful in furthering reader understanding, especially of the more obscure events and locales.

James Montgomery is one of many controversial Civil War figures who still carries a great deal of historiographical and popular baggage, and Conner deserves a lot of credit for accepting the considerable challenge of being Montgomery's first biographer. At the very least, the book's account of the full arc and range of Montgomery's military career, presented in comprehensive fashion for the first time in a single volume, should convince more open-minded critics that Montgomery was more than an unscrupulous raider.

A comparatively short-length study based on published sources, Conner's biography leaves room for a more exhaustive future treatment that casts a wider research net. Until that time, which may or may not ever arrive, in Robert Conner's James Montgomery readers can be satisfied in finally having a solid introductory history, warts and all, of the life of a major figure in the Kansas-Missouri border conflicts of the 1850s and 60s who was also one of the Union Army's most vocal proponents of black recruitment and effective leaders of such troops in the field.

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