“Headquarters in the Brush” is a solid book on Civil War matters both small and large. On one level, it provides an engrossing history of one small unit, a company of scouts organized by Union commander George Crook to conduct reconnaissance and raids in western Virginia. As a bonus, it also touches on several larger subjects.
Darl L. Stephenson, a former defense intelligence officer and Air Force reserve lieutenant colonel, has done a thorough job unearthing the lost history of Crook’s company, informally called Blazer’s Scouts. In doing so, he also shows that, pop mythology aside, the South had no monopoly on elusive and glamorous guerrilla fighters, especially in those border states most divided between North and South.
Western parts of Virginia were so torn they seceded from secessionist Virginia early in the war, becoming the new state of West Virginia in 1863. Northern military planners first wanted to secure the area from Confederate marauders to assure a safe route between Washington and the West. Later in the war, as Mr. Stephenson explains, they sought ways to menace Confederate rail routes and communications between Richmond and Tennessee.
To do so, Crook formed his “scouts” from regiments recruited locally, most from rural southern Ohio. Others, as one of his combat sources noted, were “Virginia boys.” Indeed, in memoirs by Sgt. Asbe Montgomery that Mr. Stephenson deftly plumbs, these “boys” are identified as “details of the 9th, 13th, 5th and 2nd Virginia Cavalry.”
As recent histories show, the war pitted not just the North against the South, but the South against the South. The author acknowledges that Blazer’s Scouts were socially more like Confederates than their Union colleagues. One described his farm as 63 acres of “poor nuff land.” However, some of these “Virginia boys,” Mr. Stephenson documents, came from abolitionist families whose farms had been used as stops on the Underground Railroad before the war, and the others were strongly devoted to the Union.
They volunteered for scouting because it promised relief from camp tedium plus a chance for adventure. Lt. Harrison Gray Otis much later a publishing magnate at the Los Angeles Times said scouting gave him “free play to indulge my penchant for doing audacious things in war.”
Otis was commanded by Capt. Richard Blazer, a coal-barge hauler before the war who coupled audacity with a gift for stealth and surprise; in that, Blazer seems a bluecoat version of Stonewall Jackson, “constantly turning up where he was least expected and least desired.”
Crook, who already had earned some fame as a tenacious and unconventional Indian fighter, sent Blazer and his men out in what Mr. Stephenson terms “counterinsurgency.” Blazer’s war was one of foraging, bushwhacking, sudden firefights, frequent “no quarter” and always getting horses by any means necessary.
Mr. Stephenson convincingly places these rangers within a long military tradition: They were, he says, not only descendants of the first ranger groups, organized by Robert Rogers in the French and Indian War, but also forerunners of our quick-strike elites in Afghanistan today.
In 1864, Crook’s Army of West Virginia was thrown into the Shenandoah Campaign, fought well in the battle of Lynchburg and then moved down the valley to tangle with John S. Mosby, who patrolled the gaps to the northeast. For months they turned the tables on the “Gray Ghost,” the author says, harassing his attempts to harass regular Union troops. On Nov. 18, 1864, however, Blazer overshot his mark and, near Kabletown, W.Va., attacked a Mosby unit that far outnumbered his company, which was down to 82 men. A score were killed, and Blazer and many others were captured.
Mr. Stephenson argues that the defeat overshadowed Blazer’s previous successes for two reasons: Mosby knew how to create a legend and had memoirists and others hard at work after the war to preserve his image as its premier guerrilla; a Yankee rival would not do. Also, Union Gen. Philip Sheridan gets some blame. After Kabletown, Sheridan had Crook’s scouts dissolved while he started a unit of his own.
There is more, best of all a roster listing everyone in Blazer’s Scouts, with a brief but substantive biographical paragraph on each man. You can glean a great deal just by browsing in this section. When Civil War Americans referred to “our boys,” they certainly had in mind soldiers like these, about 40 percent of whom were teen-agers. Some taken prisoner were held in Andersonville, Ga. Those who returned joined their comrades in reunions depicted in antique photos here. A few scouts even lived to ripe old age.
Along with the roster, Mr. Stephenson includes portraits of old raiders rocking away on their front porches well into the 20th century. This “long day’s journey into night” is a well-known fact, but Stephenson’s close-up, nitty-gritty detail gives it fresh life. Indeed, for me, it gave a new twist to an old question: Who was the last living Union widow?
Mr. Stephenson also has illustrated his work with some valuable sketches of scouting expeditions by some of the raiders themselves. Although scholarly, this book is amply and nicely illustrated, with detailed and well-researched text broken by scores of pictures. Mr. Stephenson and Ohio University Press, in short, have produced a little treasure.
There is one last value to “Headquarters in the Brush”: It helps to counter the residual denigration of Union soldiers as clodhoppers compared to the achillean warriors of the South. Confederate soldiers fought well, and frequently better, but when Crook asked for volunteers who were “experienced woodsmen and good shots” to form Blazer’s Scouts, he got what he asked for, and audacity, too.
Tom O’Brien is an editor and writer in Washington.