The Colonel, the War in the West, and the Emancipation Question in Kentucky
Potomac Books, Lincoln, Nebraska, 2016, 312 pages
Book Review published on: May 25, 2017
Dan Lee presents Frank Wolford, a Union colonel, and his story as both unfortunate and heroic in Wolford’s Cavalry. Lee explains that Wolford’s eccentric tendencies, stubbornness, and stovepipe focus vilified him with his contemporaries, President Abraham Lincoln, and future generations. However, they also enamored him with his soldiers. Affectionately called “Old Meat Axe,” Wolford was respected by superiors and subordinates alike, and revered for his leadership, bravery, humility, charity, and fairness.
Lee suggests that criticism of Wolford, because of his staunch and now unacceptable beliefs about gender equality and slavery, be tempered by an understanding of the world in which he lived and his consequent tendencies. These tendencies provide the basis for his heroism in both the Mexican and Civil Wars (particularly as the unconventional yet respected leader of the First Kentucky Volunteer Cavalry) along with his success in the courtroom and politics. They include a great respect for fellow soldiers (friendly and enemy alike), disgust for weakness and vices, and an unending desire for justice, even if it took a little chicanery. Lee shares a story that Wolford once successfully persuaded a jury that a man poisoned himself with a fly instead of being poisoned with arsenic by his accused wife.
All of this is set against the backdrop of Civil War-era Kentucky, with its populace attempting to balance continuing slavery while preserving the Union. This was ultimately proven impossible by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the North’s victory. The Lincoln–Wolford interplay is highly intriguing. According to the book, during a speech, in reference to Negro enlistment in the Union Army, Wolford said that Lincoln was “wantonly trampling upon the Constitution and crushing under the iron heel of military power the rights guaranteed by that instrument.” Subsequently, Wolford was arrested and eventually dishonorably discharged from the Army.
Many of the book’s pages track Wolford and the First Kentucky Volunteer Cavalry during the Civil War. The readers wade through detailed battle accounts to be rewarded with well-formatted dives into the deeper issues of the day. If a blow-by-blow recall of cavalry battles does not keep your interest, this may not be the book for you. The book concludes with Wolford’s death, labeled by the Kentucky press as his “first surrender,” after which he was compared to regional heroes, Zachary Taylor and Davy Crockett. The reader is left with the feeling that even though morally misled, Wolford was a proud American who fought to preserve the Union.
This book requires some prior knowledge of, or willingness, to research Civil War terminology but will, however, be an enjoyable reading experience for those interested in American heroes and the contested story behind the preservation of the Union.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Edward “Ted” Johnson, U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas