James Montgomery: Abolitionist Warrior and General Gordon Granger: The Savior of Chickamauga and the Man Behind “Juneteenth” by Robert C. Conner

Published by Casemate Publishers

Robert C. Conner’s biographies of James Montgomery and Gordon Granger both go a long way in providing students of the American Civil War with balanced portraits of officers whose reputations are either distorted by fictional portrayals or overshadowed by better known soldiers. In the case of James Montgomery, if he is even recognized at all, he is best known through Cliff De Young’s portrayal of him in the 1989 film “Glory”. Granger is arguably better known to students of the war; however, his finest moment as the commander of the Army of the Cumberland’s Reserve Corps at Chickamauga is eclipsed by the story of the collapse of the Union right and General George Thomas’ subsequent defense of Horseshoe Ridge, which largely covered the Union withdrawal to Chattanooga. Conner has taken the time to clarifying the contributions of both men in two separate books that present balanced pictures of their service to the United States.

Abolitionist Warrior is the first biography devoted to Montgomery and Conner does an excellent job highlighting Montgomery’s pre-war career. Montgomery was raised in Ohio and grew to be determinedly anti-slavery. As an adult, he lived In Western Missouri, bordering Kansas in the 1850s. This exposed him to the fighting between pro-slavery Missouri bushwhackers and free-state Kansans. In this environment he met abolitionist John Brown and learned the business of “hard war”, although he did not demonstrate the same propensity of Brown to use violence against non-combatants. Subsequently Montgomery served as an officer in the Union Army during the civil war,  raising and leading units of colored troops and operating in the deep South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Montgomery ultimately finished the war as the commanding officer of the 6th Kansas Militia, with whom he fought in the Battle of Westport, defeating Sterling Price’s raid into Missouri.

The heart of Abolitionist Warrior focuses on Montgomery’s command of the African-American 2nd South Carolina Infantry. In this capacity, Montgomery participated in operations with such famous figures as Harriet Tubman and Robert Gould Shaw. Montgomery’s work with Tubman, participating in a raid at Combahee Ferry near Beaufort, SC in June 1863. Union forces liberated over 750 slaves, previously declared free by the Emancipation Proclamation. Conner raises the point that the most recent modern interpretation of the event. the 2019 film Harriet, a biopic of Tubman’s life, make no mention of Montgomery’s participation. Conner additionally points out that while Montgomery has a deserved reputation for making “Old Testament” style warfare, the 1989 film Glory portrays him in an unfavorable light. The episode in question is the 1863 raid on Darien, Georgia in which Montgomery ordered the town sacked and burned, in order that the inhabitants might be made to feel “real war”. Montgomery’s regiment was operating with Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry at this time, and Shaw condemned Montgomery’s tactics but retained respect for Montgomery as an officer. The film’s depiction of Montgomery is that a two-dimensional fanatic and racist, when he was a much more complicated man who was prosecuting war in the manner he felt necessary to eradicate slavery. Ultimately, Conner paints Montgomery as a flawed hero, sincere in his convictions but often heavy handed in his methods.

Conner depicts a far more conventional officer in his biography of General Gordon Granger. Granger is an officer who led large bodies of troops at many of the war’s most famous actions to include Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge during the Chattanooga Campaign and Mobile Bay. Despite being a long serving professional, Granger never rose to prominence. Conner highlights the fact that this may be the result of the fact that he never established a harmonious working relationship with General Ulysses Grant. As Grant achieved higher rank throughout the war, he was in a position to marginalize Granger, who has previously worked well with officers with whom Grant clashed, such as William Rosecrans.

Graduating with West Point’s Class of 1845, Granger served in the Mexican American War and remained in the Army, serving in the American west in the years prior to the Civil War. After April 1861, Granger rose through the ranks of the volunteer service until he achieved general officer rank in March 1862. He served in the Western Theater participating in the Battle of New Madrid and the Siege of Corinth. By the summer of 1863 he was commanding the Reserve Corps of the Army of the Cumberland. Granger made arguably his greatest contribution of the war in this role, reinforcing the left wing of the Army of the Cumberland at Chickamauga in September of 1863 as the Union right collapsed under pressure from James Longstreet’s corps and began its retreat to Chattanooga, Tennessee. General George Thomas organized the defense of the left around strong terrain features in the vicinity of Snodgrass Hill and received the lion’s share of the credit for preventing the destruction of the Army of the Cumberland. Granger however had made the decision, in the absence of orders, to move his corps to the sound of the guns as things began to look dire for the Union forces, and presence of his corps at the decisive point gave Thomas sufficient manpower to absorb repeated Confederate attacks. Granger went on to command troops at Missionary Ridge and in the taking of Mobile Bay, Alabama but due to his lack of senior patrons, never received a command above corps-level. His greatest post-war accomplishment consisted of enforcing the emancipation of enslaved persons in Texas as part of reconstruction efforts. Granger’s initial efforts in June of 1865 were subsequently memorialized as Juneteenth, ultimately recognized as a Federal holiday on June 17, 2021.

Conner excels at researching his subjects and bringing attention to less well-known figures of the American Civil War. His writing is succinct, and his research is comprehensive. Both books could benefit from the addition of maps to assist readers in following troop movements. Overall, both James Montgomery: Abolitionist Warrior and General Gordon Granger: The Savior of Chickamauga and the Man Behind “Juneteenth” succeed as good biographies and solid American Civil War history. I highly recommend both to general readers and civil war enthusiasts alike.

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