Saturday, January 19, 2008

Kionka: "Key Command: Ulysses S. Grant's District of Cairo"

[Key Command: Ulysses S. Grant's District of Cairo by T.K. Kionka (University of Missouri Press: Columbia, MO. 2006. Photos, illustrations, notes, hardback, pp. 258, ISBN 978-0-8262-1655-7) $39.95]

Most Civil War readers are aware of Ulysses S. Grant’s early war association with Cairo, the muddy, sickly but strategically important Illinois town located at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Arriving in September 1861 and making his headquarters in the city, Grant commanded the District of Southeast Missouri (later redesignated the District of Cairo). Military highlights of his district command include the seizure of Paducah and Smithfield (KY), the Belmont campaign, and the launching of the twin river offensives in early 1862 against Forts Henry and Donelson. These events are well documented, but what Civil War historiography has previously lacked is a comprehensive history of Cairo itself and its wartime role. Author T.K. Kionka’s Key Command helps fill this void and is the first book length study of Civil War Cairo.

Early chapters trace the town’s history from its inception through to the arrival of the Cairo Expedition. These Chicago troops preceded Grant’s arrival by six months, erecting camps and hospitals, along with earthworks and batteries for the town’s defense. In her analysis of Grant’s achievements, Kionka is effusive in her praise of both Grant’s character and his organizational/military talents. One of the book’s main themes appears to be Cairo’s crucial role in Grant’s command education and as a predictor of the general’s later success. She makes a strong case in this regard. According to Kionka, Grant deserves much of the credit for staffing and organizing the district hospitals. Similarly, the general’s organizational skills streamlined supply acquisitions and, along with his essential honesty, helped root out massive fraud and waste in government contracts. The author also praises Grant’s development of a humane and efficient plan for devising gainful employment for the thousands of freedmen pouring into the general’s area of command responsibility later in the war.

Unfortunately, what Key Command lacks is balance in both content and source material. An examination of the bibliography finds only newspapers located in northern states listed and no manuscript collections outside the state of Illinois were consulted. Although not problematic in some areas, this lack of assembling a broader body of source material becomes especially troublesome in Kionka’s assessment of military events. Grant’s near disastrous Belmont campaign is uncritically accepted as a Union victory. Furthermore, the author’s characterization of Confederate and regional pro-Southern forces is often regrettable. For instance, Kionka writes “Grant stated that the notorious Jeff Thompson murdered loyal Missourians and brutally butchered their bodies” (pg. 147). M. Jeff Thompson was certainly not known for murdering civilians and there is no evidence for this charge, yet the statement is accepted without qualification. All too often, little nuance is employed in applying labels to individuals and groups from both sides. As examples, pro-secessionists are often called “terrorists” (and nowhere is it made clear that both sides were guilty of committing similar atrocities) without specifying acts committed, and Union officer John A. Logan is labeled a “traitor” at various places in the text.

Flaws aside, Key Command is a useful social and economic history of wartime Cairo. Readers wishing to learn more about the societal complexities of the “Egypt” region of Illinois and those wanting to know more about General Grant beyond his military exploits will find this study of interest.


(Review is reprinted with the permission of North and South Magazine, originally appearing in vol.10 #3, pp. 87, reviewed by Andrew Wagenhoffer)

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