- Brigadier General John D. Imboden: Confederate Commander in the Shenandoah
Spencer Tucker provides the first critical biography of the life and career of Confederate general John D. Imboden, and it will likely endure as the standard study. The book identifies exaggeration and uncorroborated statements in Imboden's writing and separates fact from fiction. This was indeed a formidable task, given the fact that James I. Robertson and other historians have declared Imboden's postwar writing unreliable and almost worthless. Harold R. Woodward Jr., in [End Page 205] Defender of the Valley: Brigadier General John Daniel Imboden (Berryville, Va., 1996), the only previous biography, solved the dilemma by accepting Imboden's tales as truth. Tucker attacked the problem head on and discovered that Imboden exaggerated as well in his official reports and other writings during the war. However, with extensive research in primary and secondary sources, Tucker highlights Imboden's strengths and points out that he has not received proper credit for his contributions to the Confederate war effort.
The most well known Imboden tale is his Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (1887–88), an account of Thomas J. Jackson's great B&O rolling-stock heist at Harper's Ferry in May 1861. Imboden was present, as captain of a Virginia artillery battery, but Tucker concludes that his story is "a bit bizarre" (40) and "there simply is no proof of the event having transpired" (41). At First Manassas, Imboden's battery contributed to Jackson's defense of Henry House Hill, and as commander of the First Virginia Partisan Rangers, Imboden scouted and guarded wagons for Jackson in the Valley Campaign. The other famous Imboden tale is that before the battle of Port Republic Jackson met with him in private and told him the details of his battle plan. Tucker found Imboden's claim "indeed strange" (88) in light of Jackson's policy of secrecy, and "probably not true" (89).
As a partisan raider, Imboden displayed initiative, used hit and run, and avoided wasting his men in attacking stronger enemy forces. Robert E. Lee approved, promoted him to brigadier general, and incorporated his command into the regular cavalry. Imboden defended Lee's supply wagons on the retreat from Gettysburg, and Lee appointed him commander of the Valley District. In 1864 Imboden delayed Franz Sigel's advance up the Valley and gave time for Gen. John C. Breckinridge to bring up his men. However, Imboden stretched the truth when he claimed that he won the battle of New Market by pushing back the Union cavalry on the Confederate right. Tucker points out that actually Imboden's men were not involved in the fighting in any meaningful way. Nevertheless, Tucker shows that historians have given Imboden too little credit for holding the first line of defense in the battle of Lynchburg and stalling the Union attack long enough for Jubal Early to organize and win the battle. Tucker interprets that Imboden saved Lynchburg with this significant action.
Weakened by typhoid fever, in December 1864 Imboden was relieved of duty in the Valley and placed in charge of prison camps that included Andersonville. Tucker shows that he was a capable administrator who did everything within his power and beyond to relieve the suffering in the camp. He conducted an unannounced inspection and took action to improve living conditions. He realized the situation was hopeless, and without approval from Richmond began paroling prisoners and having them taken to Union lines. Tucker's analysis contributes perspective to the problem of Andersonville, revealing just how unmanageable the situation was on the scene. [End Page 206]
After the war, Imboden entered a career that was ahead of its time. Today we would call him the state director of economic development for Virginia. He had offices in Richmond and New York City and traveled to London and throughout the United States to promote development of Virginia's railroads, land, timber, and coal. He was successful and had his happiest moments promoting Virginia at expositions such as the...