EXTENDED REVIEWS: Thomas Ewing Jr.
Ronald D. Smith’s biography of Thomas Ewing, Jr., highlights a fascinating man whose political, military, and business careers intersected many of the key events of the nineteenth century.
Born into a significant Whig family in Ohio, Ewing cut his political teeth in territorial Kansas, emerging as a founder of Kansas’s Republican party and as the first chief justice of the state’s Supreme Court. While on the frontier, he worked vigorously as both a lawyer dealing with land claims and as railroad lobbyist trying to secure funding for the transcontinental railroad. Like many others who came of age during this time, his career path changed with the onset of the Civil War. In 1862, he resigned his judicial position to become a Union colonel. He led troops in Arkansas—at Cane Hill and Prairie Grove—and received a promotion to general for his leadership in the latter battle. His renown, however, came from his service in the brutal guerrilla warfare in Kansas and Missouri. In response to William Clarke Quantrill’s devastating raid on Lawrence, Ewing issued General Order #11 which depopulated several Missouri counties and which Smith describes as the “most aggressive nonracial civilian relocation order in American history.”(201) Subsequently, Ewing’s skillful defense of Fort Davidson helped thwart General Sterling Price’s 1864 invasion of Missouri. After the war, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he chose the unpopular causes of defending Samuel Mudd in the Lincoln assassination trial and of allying with President Andrew Johnson. Ewing helped Johnson avoid removal from office and emerged both as a powerful power broker for former Confederates seeking pardons and as a Democrat. Eventually, he returned to Ohio, serving two terms in Congress and accumulating a small fortune in mining properties, agriculture, and banks.
Smith’s biography is not a standard birth to death story. Instead, Smith chooses to focus on not just Thomas Ewing, Jr., but on his siblings as well. Hugh and Charley Ewing also achieved general officer rank in the Union army, and their foster brother William Tecumseh Sherman—who was raised by the Ewing family from the age of nine and who married Ewing’s sister—gained even greater fame. At times, this joint approach succeeds, especially when the brothers worked together in a Leavenworth law practice and when their military careers intersected. At other points, such as multi-page discussions of the battles of Shiloh and Antietam, neither of which Thomas Ewing participated in, the multiple narrative approach distracts the reader. Unsurprisingly, Smith, an attorney, is strongest in discussing Ewing’s legal career, particularly the issues of land claims and the intricacies of railroad legislation. He also shines in addressing the controversial General Order #11, adeptly framing Ewing’s viable options and refuting the image created by George Caleb Bingham’s famous painting depicting the order. In other areas, especially when describing the political battles of territorial Kansas and the internecine Republican fighting during Reconstruction, the biography could have benefitted from a more up-to-date command of the relevant secondary sources. And, while clearly there is more material available on Ewing’s public life than his personal life, a greater examination of the latter would have been beneficial. Inexplicably, the biography neither mentions the year of Ewing’s birth nor the birth of his first child. A greater discussion of the private life of this public figure would have added to the story of the Ewing family. That being said, Smith clearly has enhanced our understanding of an important yet under-studied figure in the Civil War era.
John M. Sacher, Ph.D.
No serious reader will fail to recognize that this book makes a valuable contribution to the field of Civil War studies.
Termed by Alvin M. Josephy as the Civil War’s “forgotten war,” the Trans-Mississippi theater is often portrayed as a sideshow to the broader war. As recent scholarship has demonstrated, scholars and popular writers who ignore the conflict in the West do so at their peril. The critical social and political dynamics of the war’s western frontier served as prologue to what it soon enough became everywhere: a “people’s contest,” as Abraham Lincoln would label the conflict. Critical wartime initiatives, including confiscation, emancipation, African American recruitment, and guerrilla warfare, began on the Kansas-Missouri frontier.
Among the advocates of this scorched earth, western way of war was Thomas Ewing, Jr., who until now has escaped biographical treatment. Ewing hailed from a famous—and famously complicated—Ohio political family of U.S. senators, cabinet members, presidential candidates, and federal generals. William T. Sherman, his more famous foster brother (and brother-in-law, having married Ewing’s sister), has been the focus of most historical studies that involve the Ewings. As Ronald Smith points out rightly in his new study on Ewing, these family connections do not alone make for a worthy book. Rather, they are essential components to the story of the widening hard war in which Ewing was participant, on the Kansas-Missouri frontier and beyond.
Staked in part by family trust money, Ewing moved to Leavenworth, Kansas, where, as a lawyer and land speculator, he was an active, if moderate free-stater. Consistent with his Whig family politics, Ewing condemned both abolitionists and ultras alike. In the spring of 1856, he saw the second invasion of Missouri “border ruffians.” A year later he blew the whistle on blatant voting fraud in the election of territorial legislators. His brave integrity earned him election in December 1859 as chief justice of the first state supreme court, a position he assumed only after Kansas’s admission to the Union in 1861.
Within a year, Ewing underwent something of a conversion about slavery and the war. Believing those who supported the peculiar institution needed to be made to feel a harder hand of war, he helped to raise a regiment of Kansas cavalry and led it at Cane Hill and Prairie Grove. In 1863, despite the opposition of James H. Lane, the Kansas senator and military commander with whom Ewing had a long and complicated relationship, Lincoln appointed Ewing to command the new District of the Border over Lane’s choice, hard-liner James G. Blunt. The Ohioan vowed to “set the border right in ninety days” by reining in the region’s various paramilitary bands: jayhawkers, Red-Legs, Border Guards, and border ruffians alike (Thomas Ewing, Jr., to John M. Schofield, June 23, 1863, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.). Ewing’s response to William Quantrill’s bloody raid on Lawrence, Kansas, on August 21, 1863, made his reputation. Although Smith argues rightly that the mechanics of his infamous Order No. 11, issued four days after the atrocity, were already in the works, he echoes timeworn arguments that the order was thus not retaliatory. Surely it was. Criticized for some two hundred civilian deaths on his watch, with the president himself calling for Kansans to “punish their invaders,” and with hard-liner Lane threatening to invade Missouri in an unauthorized war of extermination, Ewing acted swiftly and precipitously (Abraham Lincoln to John M. Schofield, August 27, 1863, in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler [Springfield, Ill.: The Abraham Lincoln Association, 1953], 6:415). Believing that some two-thirds of all Missouri residents in the border district were kin to the guerrillas, he ordered the expulsion of virtually all civilians in four Missouri counties, in effect weeding a garden with a bulldozer, as Arthur Schlesinger later wrote of American military strategy in the guerrilla conflict in Vietnam. Despite redeeming himself by delaying Sterling Price’s invading horsemen at Pilot Knob in 1864, the controversy over Order No. 11 would overshadow such competence, and for the remainder of his life the combative Ewing reaped this whirlwind. Smith narrates much of this with particular skill, weaving into his story all the Ewing family members, especially those in military command.
The author has mined extensively the extant sources on the Ewings, including a cache of Tom Ewing’s correspondence outside the well-used materials at the Library of Congress, the University of Notre Dame, and the Ohio Historical Society. If criticisms are to be made of this book, they would include Smith’s near complete focus on Ewing’s Kansas and Missouri experiences; that critical paragraphs lack citations and interpolations substitute for evidence on key historical subjects; and that the author too frequently lapses into clichéd prose. But these are little more than grumbles. No serious reader will fail to recognize that this book makes a valuable contribution to the field of Civil War studies generally and the Trans-Mississippi specifically, reminding us yet again that the “forgotten war” should not be such.
Thomas Ewing Jr. Frontier Lawyer and Civil War General is a scholarly biography of former Whig senator and cabinet member destined to gain a commission in the Union Army, along with his brothers. He raised a regiment that encountered action in Arkansas and Missouri, and after William Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence, Kansas, he issued the General Order No. 11 that forcibly removed residents from sections of western Missouri. A confidant of Abraham Lincoln, Ewing dared to defend three of the assassination conspirators, and even lobbied a key vote to prevent the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. Exhaustively researched, Thomas Ewing Jr. Frontier Lawyer and Civil War General presents an in-depth, crystal clear portrait of not only one Civil War general’s life, but also the antebellum South in which he lived. Highly recommended for Civil War enthusiasts of all backgrounds.
Midwest Book Review
Ronald D. Smith’s biography of Thomas Ewing is somewhat unusual in that he devotes as much attention to his subject’s pre and post Civil War career as he does the 1861-1865 period.
Indeed, 150 pages pass before Ewing resigns his Kansas Supreme Court post to lead the 11th Kansas Infantry. Beyond merely tracing Ewing’s early legal and business career, these pages provide fascinating insights into the larger practice of frontier law and land speculation. The author, a Kansas lawyer himself, delves deeply into the boom and bust nature of the state’s territorial years. It’s a perspective of territorial Kansas not often seen in the literature. Of further interest to the reader is the manner in which Smith treats this part of his study as a family biography, following the lives of Hugh Ewing and foster brother/brother-in-law William T. Sherman almost to the same degree as Tom Ewing. Law partner Daniel McCook also figures prominently in Smith’s treatment. Stepping outside the spheres of politics and law, Smith also devotes significant attention to Ewing’s military career. The Ohioan served in the Trans-Mississippi theater from 1862-1865 in both combat and district level administrative posts. While Smith duly covers Ewing’s role in the 1862 Prairie Grove campaign, he appropriately spends the bulk of his military coverage on the two great events of Ewing’s Civil War career, the issuing of General Order No. 11 and the defense of Fort Davidson, Missouri. While I quibbled with some of the details and source use in places, there is little that’s grossly disruptive. Smith’s assessment of Ewing’s infamous Order No. 11* is sound, and the general’s stout defense of Fort Davidson (and the successful retreat that followed) during the early stages of the 1864 Price Raid through Missouri is similarly well chronicled. The third section of the book explores Ewing’s active post war career, which included participation as defense counsel in the conspiracy trial following Lincoln’s assassination and a controversial cotton business venture. Ewing was not a supporter of Radical Reconstruction and actively lobbied against a guilty verdict in President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial. Later, politics beckoned, and Ohio sent him to Congress, but Ewing failed in his subsequent gubernatorial effort. A leading legal and business figure in territorial Kansas, a Civil War general, and a politician, Thomas Ewing Jr. is deserving of a modern biography. With this book, Mr. Smith succeeds in crafting a complex and often fascinating personal, political, and military portrait of the general and of the Ewing family, as well.
* – Not to be confused with U.S. Grant’s infamous order of the same number, Ewing’s General Order No. 11 was a harsh measure enacted in the immediate wake of the 1863 Lawrence Raid. It expanded upon an earlier edict and essentially depopulated four border counties [some areas excepted] with the goal of eliminating supply sources and places of refuge for guerrillas. Those with approved Unionist credentials were allowed to remain near military posts. Controversy surrounding the order’s legality, enforcement, and effectiveness remain today, and a modern, scholarly book length study of this subject would be a welcome addition to the literature.