Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Jennison's Jayhawkers

I received Jennison’s Jayhawkers: A Civil War Cavalry Regiment and Its Commander by Stephen Z. Starr as a Christmas present from my parents in 1990. For twenty years it lingered unread on my bookshelves until I pulled it down three weeks ago and started reading it. Are there any Civil War books that have sat unread on your shelves for years? If so, what are they?

Jennison’s Jayhawkers, a study of the 7th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry, was published in 1973 but reads like a much more “modern” study. Starr devotes much attention to colorful characters such as Charles Rainsford Jennison, Daniel Anthony, John Brown, Jr, and “Buffalo Bill” Cody that served in the unit, but he also places an unusual emphasis on the home front. The 7th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry mirrored its turbulent home in many aspects and was decidedly radical in the devotion of its soldiers to abolitionism. Indeed, the regiment was merrily freeing slaves long before that became government policy. The men also had a decided propensity for plundering—particularly if it involved taking items from Missourians. Jennison’s Jayhawkers became so notorious and troublesome that authorities transferred them to the western theater where it served well in Tennessee and Mississippi. The Kansans were returned to the trans-Mississippi, though, to help defend against Price’s Raid in 1864.

A hallmark of Starr’s writing is an undercurrent of humor with some occasionally pithy comments. For example, here is a gem from Starr: “The governor’s reasons for selecting Jennison for this distinction [to raise a regiment of cavalry] were a puzzle to their contemporaries and are a puzzle to this day. [Governor] Robinson’s explanation is well below the generally low credibility level of official statements intended to explain the inexplicable” (p. 50).

My favorite “Starr-ism” is from volume one of The Union Cavalry In The Civil War: “Among the eternal verities is the tendency of the official mind to ignore inconvenient realities: the higher the post of the official and the farther removed he is from the point at which the facts can be determined by direct observation, the greater the tendency becomes” (p. 128).

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