- The Washington Times - Friday, October 1, 2010

By Anthony Arthur
Random House, $26 265 pages, illustrated

Who was the greatest cavalry general of the Civil War? Was it the dashing “Jeb” Stuart of Lee’s army, or the hyperaggressive Nathan Bedford Forrest? Perhaps neither of the above. A Union cavalryman, Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, remarked late in life that “[Jo] Shelby was the best cavalry general of the South. Under other conditions, he would have been one of the best in the world.”

History has not been especially kind to Joseph Orville Shelby, who was known to one and all by his initials. He fought in the “wrong” theater - the trans-Mississippi area - a strategic backwater. The war’s great battles would be fought in the East. But Shelby is now the subject of an admirable biography by California historian Anthony Arthur, who died shortly after completing this book.

Shelby was born to a well-to-do Kentucky family, but moved to Missouri as a young man. In the border skirmishing that marked the late 1850s, Shelby recruited and outfitted a company of pro-slavery cavalry to fight the free-soil “Jayhawkers.” The resulting guerrilla war was fought with notable ferocity, and Shelby’s men were associated with several bloody episodes.

When the Civil War broke out, Shelby’s company became part of the Confederate command led by Gen. Sterling Price. Soon promoted to colonel, Shelby marched 500 men into Missouri, where he recruited 1,000 additional troopers. Operating out of northern Arkansas in late 1862, Shelby’s “Iron Brigade” was active in a series of now-forgotten skirmishes.

In September 1863, Shelby was authorized to lead a raid from southern Arkansas to the Missouri River and back. Although Shelby was wounded in one clash, he led his men on a 1,500-mile trek that served to divert Federal units intended to reinforce Gen. William S. Rosecrans at Chattanooga, Tenn. “He fought like a man who invented fighting,” wrote one admiring biographer, “and the men of the Missouri Cavalry Brigade looked on him as the perfect commanding officer.”

Word from the east was slow in crossing the Mississippi, so Shelby was both stunned and angered by word of Lee’s surrender in April 1865. The consensus among Shelby’s men was overwhelmingly in favor of crossing the Rio Grande and offering their services to the French-backed emperor of Mexico, Maximilian.

Shelby himself had doubts - he correctly viewed Maximilian as living on borrowed time - but he agreed to lead the Iron Brigade into exile.

On July 1, 1865, Shelby and most of his men crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico. Might it not be possible, with Maximilian’s blessing, to establish a Confederate exile community there? In one of those sabers-and-moonlight moments that mark the Civil War, Shelby ordered that the brigade colors be buried in the river. The flag was displayed once more to his followers “before the swift [waters] of the Rio Grande closed over it forever.”

Shelby led his men into a country as divided as his own had been. Nationalist insurgents led by Benito Juarez sought to overthrow Maximilian, and they controlled much of the country. After Shelby’s 300-man force had reached Mexico’s Pacific coast, Shelby traveled to Mexico City to offer his services to the emperor. Maximilian was not about to antagonize Washington by hiring ex-Confederates, but he provided generous parcels of land to Shelby and his men.

“Though returning home was dangerous,” Mr. Arthur writes, “Mexico presented the Confederates with myriad challenges as well - the tropical climate, homesickness, resolving old grudges, finding the money to stay alive, coping with the fact that they had no say in the political future of the country.”

Dreams of a flourishing expatriate community died with the overthrow and execution of Maximilian in 1867. That same year, Shelby and his family - there were seven children in all - returned to Missouri, where he sought to make a living from farming. The Shelby name still resonated in Missouri, but Jo dissipated any prospect for a political career by his political incorrectness. On more than one occasion, he was quoted as saying, “We of the South are glad that slavery is dead for all time.”

In 1892, Shelby came to the attention of President Grover Cleveland when a former governor of Missouri, Thomas Fletcher, suggested him for public office. Fletcher told Cleveland that although Shelby was “the most dangerous man we had to deal with during the war, no man was so widely instrumental in helping us bring order out of chaos when the war was over.”

After a vigorous debate in the U.S. Senate - it did not help that Frank and Jesse James were among Shelby’s friends - the former cavalryman was confirmed as U.S. marshal for western Missouri. The old warrior served with distinction in this capacity until his death in 1897.

Mr. Arthur has taken a footnote to history - Shelby’s march - and turned it into a lively narrative of post-Civil War America and Mexico.

Historian and biographer John M. Taylor lives in McLean, Va.

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