Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Smith: "Thomas Ewing Jr. : Frontier Lawyer and Civil War General"

[Thomas Ewing Jr.: Frontier Lawyer and Civil War General by Ronald D. Smith (Univ. of Missouri Press - Shades of Blue and Gray series, 2008). Hardcover, photos, map, footnotes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 360/393. ISBN: 9780826218063 $44.95]

Ronald D. Smith's biography of Thomas Ewing is somewhat unusual in that he devotes as much attention to his subject's pre and post Civil War career as he does the 1861-1865 period. Indeed, 150 pages pass before Ewing resigns his Kansas Supreme Court post to lead the 11th Kansas Infantry. Beyond merely tracing Ewing's early legal and business career, these pages provide fascinating insights into the larger practice of frontier law and land speculation. The author, a Kansas lawyer himself, delves deeply into the boom and bust nature of the state's territorial years. It's a perspective of territorial Kansas not often seen in the literature. Of further interest to the reader is the manner in which Smith treats this part of his study as a family biography, following the lives of Hugh Ewing and foster brother/brother-in-law William T. Sherman almost to the same degree as Tom Ewing. Law partner Daniel McCook also figures prominently in Smith's treatment.

Stepping outside the spheres of politics and law, Smith also devotes significant attention to Ewing's military career. The Ohioan served in the Trans-Mississippi theater from 1862-1865 in both combat and district level administrative posts. While Smith duly covers Ewing's role in the 1862 Prairie Grove campaign, he appropriately spends the bulk of his military coverage on the two great events of Ewing's Civil War career, the issuing of General Order No. 11 and the defense of Fort Davidson, Missouri. While I quibbled with some of the details and source use in places, there is little that's grossly disruptive. Smith's assessment of Ewing's infamous Order No. 11* is sound, and the general's stout defense of Fort Davidson (and the successful retreat that followed) during the early stages of the 1864 Price Raid through Missouri is similarly well chronicled.

The third section of the book explores Ewing's active post war career, which included participation as defense counsel in the conspiracy trial following Lincoln's assassination and a controversial cotton business venture. Ewing was not a supporter of Radical Reconstruction and actively lobbied against a guilty verdict in President Andrew Johnson's impeachment trial. Later, politics beckoned, and Ohio sent him to Congress, but Ewing failed in his subsequent gubernatorial effort.

A leading legal and business figure in territorial Kansas, a Civil War general, and a politician, Thomas Ewing Jr. is deserving of a modern biography. With this book, Mr. Smith succeeds in crafting a complex and often fascinating personal, political, and military portrait of the general and of the Ewing family, as well.

* - Not to be confused with U.S. Grant's infamous order of the same number, Ewing's General Order No. 11 was a harsh measure enacted in the immediate wake of the 1863 Lawrence Raid. It expanded upon an earlier edict and essentially depopulated four border counties [some areas excepted] with the goal of eliminating supply sources and places of refuge for guerrillas. Those with approved Unionist credentials were allowed to remain near military posts. Controversy surrounding the order's legality, enforcement, and effectiveness remain today, and a modern, scholarly book length study of this subject would be a welcome addition to the literature.

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Other Civil War Books and Authors reviews of Univ. of Missouri Press titles:

* Man of Douglas, Man of Lincoln: The Political Odyssey of James Henry Lane
* Confederate Colonels: A Biographical Register
* Peacekeeping on the Plains: Army Operations in Bleeding Kansas
* Missouri's Confederate: Claiborne Fox Jackson and the Creation of Southern Identity in the Border West
* The Civil War's First Blood: Missouri, 1854-1861 (for Missouri Life)
* Key Command: Ulysses S. Grant's District of Cairo

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