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James Montgomery Cover

James Montgomery

Abolitionist Warrior

Robert C. Conner

Casemate, Philadelphia, 2022, 240 pages

Book Review published on: October 14, 2022

Montgomery first rose to prominence when he played a leading role in the free-state side of the irregular guerrilla conflict of “Bleeding Kansas.” There first, as later in the whole country, slavery proved to be too much for American democracy to handle, short of military intervention.1

For some readers, James Montgomery and his involvement in the Civil War may seem a little obscure. In the above quote, Robert Conner sets the stage for this interesting and engaging narrative of a character about whom very little has been written. For readers who reside in the Midwest, Conner’s description of Montgomery’s abolitionist zeal that led him to fight initially in Kansas/Missouri and later as part of the island campaign in the South, provides an interesting window into local history. Conner has created a fascinating account of an imperfect citizen soldier who significantly contributed to the ultimate union victory.

Conner’s James Montgomery: Abolitionist Warrior is a quick read organized into an introduction and seven chapters chronicling Montgomery’s initial experiences leading small insurgent bands to ultimately brigade-sized formations in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Montgomery was part of what is known as the union island campaign in the South. Some historians might view this campaign as something of a backwater during the Civil War. Conner shows the importance of this effort especially regarding driving change in the United States Army toward employing African Americans as soldiers. As an abolitionist, Montgomery had used African Americans as soldiers before. Therefore, it was not particularly surprising that Montgomery was among the first commanders to recruit former slaves and employ them as union soldiers. Montgomery was a bit of an early adapter in this case, as he was the first commander to employ African Americans in a military support role as wagon drivers at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in August 1861.

One of the most engaging sections of this book is chapter 5, which discusses Montgomery’s involvement in the Battle of Olustee in Baker County, Florida. In this battle, Montgomery comes into his own as a brigade commander. He was held as the reserve during an attack that went poorly. Using an early form of mission command, Montgomery attacks without orders and prevents a rout of the union force. This is a significant moment because Montgomery’s force was manned by a significant number of African American soldiers. At this point in the Army’s history, some voices claimed that African American soldiers would not fight effectively. Montgomery’s brigade effectively saved the day. This had a significant effect on white opinion of African American soldiers and their capability to fight, prompting President Abraham Lincoln to mention the Battle of Olustee as an example of African American bravery.

James Montgomery: Abolitionist Warrior is an excellent read for military and civilian readers alike. This book would serve as an excellent reading for classes on just war theory, racial justice, and the historical context that led to and existed throughout the Civil War. There are some great discussion points that could be employed ranging from historical context of the 1860s when the war occurred, the evolution of the employment of African Americans as soldiers during the Civil War, and fair and equal treatment under the law. Conner never tries to claim that Montgomery is a perfect character. He was a largely self-taught soldier who tended to do things his own way—not always popular with the professional officer corps. That said, Conner has painted an interesting picture of what it was like to be a citizen soldier on the frontier of Kansas that fought for two years during the Civil War making a significant impact.


Note

  1. Robert C. Conner, James Montgomery: Abolitionist Warrior (Philadelphia: Casemate, 2022), 2.

Book Review written by: Richard A. McConnell, DM, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas