Against the Grain
Colonel Henry M. Lazelle and the U.S. Army
University of North Texas Press, Denton, Texas, 2015, 432 pages
Book Review published on: February 15, 2019
Ideas that go against the grain are difficult to accept. In the mid-1800s, during the Civil War, military officers were being dismissed for incompetence, inappropriate behavior, and cowardice. However, in some cases, they were replaced with officers that were just as bad. Brig. Gen. Henry M. Lazelle spent much of his life defending his actions with peers, the press, his superiors, and his family. Pursuit of his values caused Lazelle to focus often on specific details. Those details sometimes supported his original beliefs but often required him to become entrenched in investigations. Those investigations many times ended well for Lazelle, but often, the validation was accompanied by negative memories and loss. You would think that challenging the norm would have had a negative impact on Lazelle’s career; however, of the 66 percent of cadets in his class who didn’t achieve the rank of general, he was the only one to achieve the rank of colonel, and he was later awarded the rank of brigadier general.
Lazelle was the son of a farmer who was orphaned at four years of age. As a young man, he was suspended from West Point, only to return later and graduate near the bottom of his class. Early in his career, he married the daughter of a prominent banking family and had two sons, Jacob and Horace. He would spend his military career clarifying details of events so much so that the Army would later ask him to return to West Point as the commandant of the Corps of Cadets during the acceptance of the U.S. Military Academy’s first African American cadets, and also to compile the Civil War records for public use when the press was expecting records to be destroyed and history perverted. After retirement, his son Jacob’s passing, and his wife’s passing, the seventy-two-year-old Lazelle became estranged from his only surviving child, Horace, when he remarried Emilie Marie Monard, age thirty-three. Lazelle would continue writing Horace and his granddaughter for the next seventeen years until five months before his passing. However, with no attachment to Horace upon her passing and no children of her own, Emilie left the Lazelle estate to friends and two Monard family members.
Abraham Lincoln said, “A man’s character is like a tree, and his reputation like it’s shadow; the shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” Lazelle experienced many challenges to his reputation: suspension from West Point; capture and exchange for a confederate officer; being “paroled” as a prisoner of war; appointment as the commandant of cadets of West Point during the school’s acceptance of its first African American cadets; and the death of his wife of fifty years, remarriage to a second wife thirty-nine years his junior, and subsequent estrangement of his only surviving child. Lazelle spent much of his life questioning his own assumptions, being challenged for his actions, and ensuring accurate documentation of events. One would think that going against the grain would have negatively impacted his career. But at a time when the country was changing, questioning his assumptions and focusing on the details helped Lazelle to prove his character and led him to be one of the most successful cadets of his class.
Against the Grain is a biography written by Lazelle’s great-grandson, James Carson. I picked-up Carson’s book hoping for a case study on implementing change; instead, I found a book on integrity, determination, and perseverance. I enjoyed the book. My favorite parts were Lazelle’s West Point attendance, his tenure as commandant of the Corps of Cadets, and his compilation of the Civil War records; however, others might enjoy the tales of Kit Carson, the Know-Nothings, Abraham Lincoln, Civil War assignments, interaction with Ulysses S. Grant, and the discovery of black gold. I recommend this book to anyone in a challenging work environment.
Book Review written by: Kathy Kim Strand, MEd, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas