Monday, January 29, 2007

Castel & Goodrich: "Bloody Bill Anderson"

[Bloody Bill Anderson: The Short, Savage Life of a Civil War Guerrilla by Albert Castel and Tom Goodrich (University of Kansas Press, 2006 paperback ed.: 21 photographs, 4 maps, notes, bibliographic essay, 163 pages. ISBN 978-0-7006-1434-9]

Bloody Bill Anderson is not a full biography of the famous guerrilla, but rather an intense blow by blow account of the bloody swath cut by his bushwhacker band through north central Missouri in 1863-64. The relatively short--yet tightly focused and highly detailed--manuscript is much more chronicle (and a grisly one at that) than analysis; but I don't view that as a flaw in this case. Other works in the literature examine the guerrilla war in various contexts (motivations, psychology, etc.), but no other book has recounted Anderson's Civil War career as thoroughly and as explicitly as this one. The centerpiece is a tense almost minute-by-minute account of the infamous September 27, 1864 Centralia massacre and battle. The relative effectiveness of each side's arms and tactics is frightfully apparent. Also, the detailed narrative of the guerrilla force's consequent attempt to elude other vengeful state militia units converging on the scene provides a good example of the techniques used by the irregulars to avoid mass capture when finally brought to bay.

In the preface, authors Castel and Goodrich admit that they approach the Missouri guerrilla war from a slightly different perspective. Relatively speaking, one is more understanding of the bushwhacker bands than the other [if you've read the previous works of both authors you can pretty much figure it out]. One might expect problems to arise from this, but the authorial tug and pull is integrated into the text quite seamlessly. Importantly, it should be mentioned that the actual atrocities committed are uniformly condemned and certainly not excused or rationalized in any way. The writing style itself deserves some mention. With many descriptive passages, a degree of novelistic flourish not often found in non-fiction works is present. Some reviewers have found fault with this, but I found the narrative to be refreshingly well written and don't believe the stylistic flair took excessive liberties in this particular case.

Although Bloody Bill Anderson has no formal bibliography, the authors did include a wonderful bibliographic essay that should not be missed. As Castel and Goodrich maintain, perhaps the greatest obstacle to writing objective histories of the Missouri guerrilla conflict is the absence of bushwhacker diaries, letters, and official reports. Guerrilla memoirs exist, but they are all too often unreliable (according to the authors, the best published memoir is John McCorckle's Three Years With Quantrell). This leaves researchers to rely upon Federal reports, local histories, and newspaper articles. In fact, several chapters of the book, especially those passages dealing with guerrilla movements post-Centralia, would have been impossible to write without U.S. sergeant (and Centralia prisoner) Thomas Goodman's A Thrilling Record. As a general service to those readers wishing to delve deeper into the matter at hand, I wish more non-fiction works would include an essay critiquing the major source materials.

Brutally honest in its depiction of the savage violence of Missouri's guerrilla conflict, Bloody Bill Anderson is an important addition to the literature of the 'uncivil' war. It belongs on the bookshelf of any serious student interested in the subject and is heartily recommended.

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