Sunday, March 25, 2012

Stealing the General by Russell S. Bonds

The Civil War is barely a year old.  The great and terrible battles to come in places like Shiloh, Gettysburg, and Petersburg have yet to happen.  It is a time of hope, in a funny sort of way, because there is a belief that the war can still be ended quickly, if only a bold stoke against the Confederacy is struck.

Enter James Andrews and one ambitious plan.

This book is the story of Andrews and his raiders, a band of twenty four men who volunteers for what was effectively a spy mission, despite later denials by the participants.  Selected from the ranks of General Mitchell, a man who thought bigger than his manpower could handle, they infiltrated the southern lines through a Kentucky cover story and before anyone knew it, had stolen an engine, with the idea of destroying rail bridges and cutting the Confederacy in half.

It was an amazing plan.  It also ended badly for eight of the participants, including Andrews.

Dogged by bad luck and the determination of one railroad man (Captain Fuller), the raiders are all captured, and the story of their survival (or death) is as heroic as any story in the Civil War.  In the process, most of the Raiders would be the first to receive the most prestigious award in the United States:  The Medal of Honor.

In this gripping and engaging narrative,. Bonds digs deep into a story that has mostly faded from the annals of Civil War history.  I consider myself to be more knowledgeable about the Civil War than most people, and all I knew of this raid was that it was yet another failed Union scheme without much consequence.  Bonds shows that, in context, the raid had a powerful effect on both the North and the South, and while it was doomed to failure almost from the start, its impact was lasting.

Taking the time to set the stage and show the problems in the Western theater during early 1862, Bonds describes the command failures of generals such as Buell and the intra-army jostling for position and prominence.  This is the story not just of the Andrews Raiders, but of their commander, General O.M. Mitchell, whose fate would be to serve as an Icarus figure, who strove for the sun, burned his wings, and paid the price, dying in a departmental backwater of yellow fever.  It is also the story of a deluded Confederacy, that constantly underestimated the raiders and was shocked that any Union troops could penetrate so far into their territory.  It was a lesson they'd learn far more painfully in 1864, as Sherman took the same ideas that Andrews and Mitchell had, but used sufficient force to get the job done.  Sherman's strike into the heart of the Confederacy was not unlike that of Mitchell--he just had roughly ten times the number of soldiers.

In addition to showing the grand scale, Bonds does an amazing job of using whatever first person accounts are available to detail the story of the raiders and the "great locomotive chase" giving an intimate picture of the story of the soldiers as they braved the rain to make it to the locomotive, their desperate ride on the rails and the many, many choices they faced before ultimately being captures.  Hindsight is 20/20, but looking at the options shown by Bonds, it is clear that Andrews was in over his head once the chase got started, relying on bluffs to get by when force may have been needed.

The book's most difficult sections are the descriptions of the Southern prisons that the raiders must endure and the hypocritical court martial that leads to the death of Andrews and seven of the raiders.  While the South regularly sent men north to do the same thing that Andrews and his men attempted, they acted as though the soldiers had committed an act of violence so heinous, that only death by hanging was appropriate.  The North gave similar Southern prisoners the rights of soldiers.  The South denied these men the same courtesy.  It's yet another nail in the coffin of the myth of Confederate "honor" if you ask me.  Bonds is more neutral, but to me, the way the raiders were treated was barbaric.

After several attempts, eight of the Raiders managed to escape and those still behind bars were eventually given their proper status as prisoners of war.  Many of these men returned to serve in the Union Army once more, even participating in Sherman's March to the Sea, an irony not lost on them, I'm sure.  Before this happens, however, several of them become part of a hallowed tradition, receiving the Medal of Honor.  Bonds speaks briefly, in one of his many, but useful digressions about the award and its history, leading up to the current day.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this story is the conflicting accounts given by some of the participants.  Bonds is clear when he's suspicious of a narrative and does not hesitate to state that he believes something to be false.  He also tries, wherever possible, to show both sides of a story where the raiders (or their jailers) disagree on a particular point.  The main chroniclers of the raid, Corporal (later Reverend) Pittinger and Captain Fuller, had axes to grind as they tried to make themselves look better than they probably were.  It's a pitfall of many autobiographical works, and Bonds acknowledges that fact.  However, given the spotty records of the time and the early deaths of many of those involved, such as General Mitchell and the hanged Andrews, sometimes these biased accounts are all that the author can use.

In the end, the Andrews Raiders probably could not have managed to bring down the Confederacy, even if they had managed to get their stolen train back to Union lines.  Mitchell simply did not have the manpower, and his immediate superior had no desire to help his presumptuous subordinate.  Their story, however, is no less amazing for its futility.  This is a great book for Civil War enthusiasts looking to go deeper than just  reading about the major battles.  Bonds is an excellent writer in addition to being a solid, fact-based historian.  If you want to learn about one of the most fascinating raids of the war and a story of determination, you can do no better than to read this book.

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