Henry Baxter (1821–1873) was representative of an ascendant element in nineteenth-century American culture—a generation that transformed the western frontier, fought the Civil War, and led the United States toward forceful involvement in world affairs. In his biography of Baxter, Jay C. Martin has given us more than a Civil War book; he has elucidated how individuals responded to the cultural imperatives of their times. In a particularly insightful introduction, Martin argues that Baxter was typical of "aggressive, self-motivated Americans. … who played transformative roles. … at a time when great opportunity surrounded those with the imagination to see it. Their culture encouraged them to seize the chance" (p. 2). This cultural "nurturing of talent spawned 'venturists,' quick learners who were a super-productive, highly capable group" (p. 3).
Martin's exhaustive study of early histories and legislative and court records for southern Michigan, where Baxter's father, Levi, settled his family in 1831, reveals little of the "venturist" in Baxter's early adulthood. Baxter took over one of his father's mills in Jones ville in 1843, but opportunity beckoned from the California gold fields in 1849. Martin's minutely detailed account of Baxter's two-year, less than lucrative journey to and from California will be of interest to scholars not least because it views the gold rush from a Michigan perspective, based on hometown newspaper accounts. Upon his return to Michigan, Baxter found little opportunity to exercise the recognized leadership ability he had developed in his travels. He operated in the shadow of his more prominent older brother, Witter. Henry Baxter held only a minor political office and played a small role in the new Republican Party in the mid-1850s. His family and community connections opened wider opportunities with the outbreak of the Civil War.
Martin's account of Baxter's Civil War career, supported by substantial research in letters from Michigan soldiers and the memoirs of Baxter's adjutant, occupies just over half the book. Martin traces Baxter's rise from elected captain of the Jonesville company of the Seventh Michigan led by the "well-connected" Ira Grosvenor, through his promotion to lieutenant colonel after Grosvenor's [End Page 429] "questionable conduct" at the battle of Glendale, to his appointment as brigadier general in recognition of his outstanding performance at the battle of Fredericksburg (pp. 56, 72). Martin's purpose is to demonstrate that "[m]any of the leaders who achieved success during the Civil War were venturists. But the interpretation that the Mexican War was the cradle of leadership for the Civil War has prevailed because it fit the designs of the army elite who so often wrote military history" (p. 3). Martin thus seems to distinguish political officers, like Grosvenor, from venturists, like Baxter. Baxter's skillful leadership at Antietam and Gettysburg is evidence that "resourceful and dynamic Civil War leaders also came from among the venturists" without formal military education (p. 3).
Baxter found his return to Jonesville and participation in local veterans' affairs unsatisfying, and he used his war record and state political connections to secure an appointment as United States minister to Honduras in 1869. Until 1873, Baxter, as illuminated by his diplomatic correspondence, deftly maneuvered through the volatile mix of turbulent Central American politics and expanding international business interests without serious repercussions for his government. For Martin, Baxter's career demonstrated that "a person who encapsulated the key characteristics of the venturist was the ideal American" by the standards of the time (p. 3).