Friday, May 18, 2012

Cullimore:"THE BOYS OF COMPANY K: Ohio Cavalry Soldiers in the West During the Civil War"

[ The Boys of Company K: Ohio Cavalry Soldiers in the West During the Civil War by Lee M. Cullimore (High Plains Press). Softcover, maps, photos, roster, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:324/354. ISBN:978-1-937147-01-3 $18.95 ]

The men of the 11th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry signed up to fight Confederates, but instead were sent out west to the plains of Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, and the Dakotas to fight Indians, primarily Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Sioux. Raised piecemeal, the 11th never campaigned as a full regiment. Two companies were incorporated into the regiment in 1864, the last the subject of Lee Cullimore's The Boys of Company K: Ohio Cavalry Soldiers in the West During the Civil War. A useful regimental history already exists in Robert Huhn Jones' Guarding the Overland Trails: The Eleventh Ohio Cavalry in the Civil War (Aurthur H. Clark, 2005), but Cullimore's company study is a more intimate portrayal of frontier service.

The story of Company K is largely told through the writings of three soldiers, the journal of Lewis B. Hull [first published in 1938], and the letters of Franklin Tubbs and William F. Mooney. These three soldiers and others provide the reader with a wealth of detail about military service on the western plains 1864-66 and what life was like in a Civil War frontier fort. Insights into how the authorities and the soldiers dealt with the typical issues of isolated military service (e.g. boredom, loneliness, desertion, weather extremes, and alcoholism) are presented.

The company began active service in 1864 with an arduous march to Fort Laramie. That place and Fort Halleck constituted their primary area of operations.   Duties included protection of settlers as well as keeping open telegraph lines and clearing the main overland trails to mail, emigration, travel, and freight service. Sand Creek made already difficult problems in carrying out these tasks even more so, and the book describes several skirmishes between volunteers and Indian raiders.  The maps included in the book are quite good at tracing movements and locating places mentioned in the text. Cullimore does perhaps devote a bit to much space to men and events outside the direct experience of the men of Company K, and one might have wished for a more balanced portrait of Indian-White frontier relations.  Overall, though, his narrative supplements quite usefully other notable books on the subject of the Overland Trails during the Civil War like John McDermott's Circle of Fire and the excellent Massacre Along the Medicine Road by Ronald Becher.

The company's participation in the 1865 Powder River Expedition is also chronicled. For the most part, this is done well.  Unfortunately, much of today's western writing remains a definitionally muddled and ideologically inconsistent attempt to distinguish between battle and massacre, and The Boys of Company K's attempt to draw convincing parallels between the Tongue River fight and Sand Creek is similarly unedifying in this regard. Cullimore's interpretation of the fight at Black Bear's camp on the Tongue is also at odds with that presented in David Wagner's well regarded two-volume history of the expedition [Powder River Odyssey: Nelson Cole's Western Campaign of 1865, The Journals of Lyman G. Bennett and Other Eyewitness Accounts (2009) and Patrick Connor's War: The 1865 Powder River Indian Expedition (2010)].

While Cullimore's notes do provide an enriching array of background and biographical material, I do wish he had included source notes in the traditional manner. Absent this, there is a bibliography listing the books, articles, newspapers, and archival materials consulted by the author.  Above concerns aside, those interested in the Civil War service of the 11th Ohio Cavalry and the last great Plains Indian Wars campaign conducted by Union volunteer units before their replacement by army regulars will find the book worthy of their attention.

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