Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Review: The Last Confederate General

The Last Confederate General:
John C. Vaughn and his East Tennessee Cavalry
By Larry Gordon

In 1990 Ken Burns opened his 11 hour PBS documentary, “The Civil War,” with the tale of Wilmer McClean, on whose farm in July of 1861 the newly formed Union and Confederate armies converged in the first major battle of the Civil War, Bull Run. Afterwards, McClean moved his family out of harms way, to the small cross roads town of Appomattox Courthouse, southwest of Richmond, and there, in his living room, three and a half years later, Lee surrendered to Grant, “and Wilmer McClean could rightfully say, ‘The war began in my front yard, and ended in my front parlor.”

Though it is hard to find a person whose story better arcs the full four, battle bloodied years of the American Civil War, author Larry Gordon has found just such a person in Brigadier General John Crawford Vaughn of the Confederacy.

In his book, “The Last Confederate General: John C. Vaughn and his East Tennessee Cavalry,” Beginning with his ancestry and early life, Mr. Gordon’s linear narrative follows this all but forgotten east Tennessean’s life from the Mexican War and the Civil War to his death.

What makes the story of John C. Vaughn fascinating is that he seems to have been, at least from a historian’s perspective, at the right place at the right time, for some of the most crucial events of the Civil War. Tennessee’s secession from the United States was ratified by the voters of the state on June 8, 1861, making it the last state to leave the Union. But even before the state’s separation Vaughn and recruited and organized the 3rd Tennessee Infantry and was elected as its Colonel. The regiment then boarded a train bound for Manassas, Virginia and the First Battle of Bull Run, in what would be the first use of a railroad to move troops to a battlefield.

East Tennessee, known for its pro-Unionist sentiment during the war, was much like any of the other Border States. Mr. Gordon does an admirable job of painting a picture of a society where distrust lay everywhere; neighbor turned on neighbor, and where often there was localized violence. The Vaughn family, an island of secessionist in a sea of unionists, became themselves, pawns in the chess game of war. Vaughn’s, father, wife and family were arrested and taken north to prison.

Promoted to the rank of Brigadier General after the Battle of Lexington, Kentucky, Vaughn & his East Tennesseans were sent to Mississippi, where they made an unsuccessful attempt to block Grant’s westerly march at Big Black River Bridge, and retreated into the defenses of Vicksburg. After a forty-seven day siege Vicksburg was surrendered and Vaughn and his troopers paroled.

Later Vaughn & his command returned to the Eastern Theater and were a part of General Grumble Jones’ forces that were routed at Piedmont. Controversy has for years swirled around Vaughn’s action in this battle, and frequently Vaughn has been blamed for the Confederate defeat. Mr. Gordon does an exemplary job in demonstrating that Vaughn was in no way to blame for the loss.

Being a part of Jubal Early’s Corps, Vaughn’s brigade also took part in Early’s raid on Washington, D.C., and even after Lee surrendered to Grant, Vaughn & his troops continued to serve the Confederacy as an escort to its fleeing president, Jefferson Davis. Vaughn left Davis shortly before his capture and was the last Confederate general in the field. He surrendered his troops a month after Lee’s capitulation.

Mr. Gordon ends his narrative with a brief summary of John C. Vaughn’s life and political career after the war until his death in 1875.

With but a limited cache of Vaughn’s personal writings, Gordon does an admirable job of piecing together the life of John C. Vaughn, and giving us a sense of who the man was. Mr. Gordon’s is a narrative well researched, and written in an easy manner. He has done well to bring to light the story of the Last Confederate General that might have otherwise been left to the dustbin of our history.

Wilmer McClean may have claimed that the war started in front yard and ended in his front parlor, but John C. Vaughn experienced the war in all of its horrors from the Confederacy’s birth and first cry of victory at Bull Run to its last gasp of breath at its death.

ISBN 978-0-7603-3517-8, Zenith Press, © 2009, Hardcover, 272 pages, photographs, maps, appendices, endnotes, bibliography & index. $27

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