Albert C. Ellithorpe, the First Indian Home Guards and the Civil War on the Trans-Mississippi Frontier
Edited by M. Jane Johansson
Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 2016, 280 pages
Book Review published on: June 16, 2017
The current interest in the intersection between the American Civil War and the conquest of the American West continues to spawn works analyzing these connections. Jane Johansson, professor of history at Rogers State University in Oklahoma, has brought forth Albert C. Ellithorpe, the First Indian Home Guards and the Civil War on the Trans-Mississippi Frontier, a diary kept by a well-connected Chicagoan who served as a field-grade officer in a Union regiment comprised of loyal Creeks and Seminoles, and one of the more illuminating sources covering this period. The First Indian Home Guards, raised initially to help protect the loyal Indians and their homes in the Indian Territory, campaigned actively and participated in several of the more important engagements in the theater, including the battles at Prairie Grove and Honey Springs. But Ellithorpe’s diary, ably supplemented with letters he wrote to the Chicago Tribune, focuses more on the irregular war that typified the border region, and the intrigue and lobbying for position that permeated an army composed largely of citizen volunteers. Accordingly, this book does less to help us understand why federal forces eventually prevailed in the struggle on the western border (though Ellithorpe does have prescient insights on how the bushwhackers infesting the region required a “hard hand”) and sheds more light on how political maneuvering, petty feuds, graft, and corruption hampered the Union war effort.
Ellithorpe earned his position as a major of the First Indian Home Guards largely through his recruiting efforts but struggled constantly against the “Kansas clique” that sought to remove outsiders from their state’s regiments and replace them with political cronies. In this, they were ultimately successful, as Ellithorpe found himself shunted into a nonexistent regiment and replaced in his own by an acolyte of Kansas Sen. James Lane. Ellithorpe’s principal crime was to bring charges on the colonel of his regiment for fraudulently collecting pay for the African-Creek interpreters in his unique unit, where only a portion of the officers and very few of the soldiers were fluent in English, and then absconding with the funds. Though Ellithorpe won the particular battle of forcing Lt. Col. Stephen Wattles to return the funds, he lost the war to remain with his regiment. Accordingly, Ellithorpe’s story offers a valuable assessment of the importance of moral courage in military organizations.
Johansson is to be commended for bringing this resource, which had languished in private hands until it was donated to the Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield library, to a wider audience and students of irregular warfare in the period will likely benefit from Ellithorpe’s detailed accounting of his experiences that included unleashing the soldiers of his command on the irregulars infesting the territory. But if the intrigue, corruption, and careerism present among the officer corps of his regiment were typical of other formations, it is difficult to understand how the Union Army could have successfully prosecuted the war.
Book Review written by: Christopher M. Rein, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas