Phantoms of the South Fork
Captain McNeill and His Rangers
Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio, 2017, 312 pages
Book Review published on: November 9, 2018
Steve French’s historical Civil War book, Phantoms of the South Fork: Captain McNeill and His Rangers, is a well-written, thoroughly researched book about the little-known McNeill Rangers, a Confederate partisan unit who operated in the heavily-contested area of northwest Virginia and southern Maryland—an area with deeply divided loyalties during the Civil War. Mosby’s Rangers are probably the most well-known Confederate partisan unit; however, the much smaller and lesser-known McNeill Rangers created a war record that rivaled Mosby’s.
At the start of the Civil War, John McNeill, a native of Moorefield, Hardy County, Virginia, had a successful cattle business in Daviess County, Missouri. Early in the war, McNeill formed a cavalry company and joined the pro-southern Missouri State Guard where he fought under Maj. Gen. Sterling Price. Wounded and captured, he escaped and made his way to Moorfield by the summer of 1862. In Richmond, under the Partisan Ranger Act of 1862, McNeill received permission from Confederate Secretary of War George W. Randolph to form a partisan company as part of Col. John Imboden’s 1st Virginia Partisan Rangers.
From September 1862 until the end of the Civil War, McNeill’s Rangers conducted military operations, targeting not only Union military units but also destroying railroad facilities, interrupting lines of communication, foraging for or capturing Union supplies to send to the Confederate army, and fighting pro-Union irregular forces. McNeill’s successful exploits often garnered praise from commanders from throughout the Confederate army, even receiving recognition by Gen. Robert E. Lee for the audacious raid that resulted in the capture of Union generals George Crook and Benjamin Kelley. In February 1864, the Confederate Congress rescinded the Partisan Ranger Act with the intent that partisan units would enroll into the main Confederate army. Of all the partisan units, only two, Mosby’s Rangers and McNeill’s Rangers, received an exception and were allowed to remain.
Although the book’s main focus is on McNeill’s Rangers, the author also does a tremendous job of presenting both sides of the conflict. Pro-southern supporters viewed McNeill’s Rangers as heroes while pro-Union supporters viewed McNeill’s Rangers as thieves and murderers. By providing both sides of the story, the reader gains a better understanding of what motivated each side and sees examples of both kindness and brutality.
I highly recommend this book to a wide audience. A casual reader of history will enjoy the stories of raids, cavalry charges, all night rides through the mountains, narrow escapes, and even a few love stories. A more serious history scholar will appreciate Steve French’s thorough research into not only Civil War irregular warfare but also military operations in a lesser known, yet critical, theater of war encompassing the tristate area of present-day eastern West Virginia, western Virginia, and Maryland. The chapter notes and references provide an additional level of detail for those who like to expand their knowledge even farther.
Book Review written by: David E. McCulley, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas