- A Politician Turned General: The Civil War Career of Stephen Augustus Hurlbut
A Politician Turned General is a useful biography of an Illinois politician and Union general whose career touched on several key events of the Civil War era and its politics. Stephen A. Hurlbut was involved in the rise of the Republican party, the Civil War in the Mississippi Valley, wartime Reconstruction, creating the Grand Army of the Republic, and U.S. intervention in Latin American politics. Although Hurlbut held high office in government and the military, Jeffrey Lash rates his career a failure. Lash concludes that "the combination of Hurlbut's abilities as a lawyer, politician, and volunteer soldier could not compensate for his intemperance, cupidity, and abuse of power" (213).
Born in South Carolina in 1815, Hurlbut grew up in a family of Whig nationalists who were politically isolated in the states'-rights hotbed of Charleston. Hurlbut practiced law in Charleston and campaigned for Whig politicians. Heavy indebtedness, some of it caused by drinking and gambling, cut short Hurlbut's rise as a civic leader. In 1845, he escaped his creditors by moving to the small northern Illinois town of Belvidere. There Hurlbut rebuilt his reputation. He opened a law office and married into the family of a prominent local jurist. In 1847, Hurlbut represented his county in the state constitutional convention, where he spoke against a ban on free black migration into Illinois. In 1854, he joined the fledgling Republican party to protest the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opened new federal territory to slavery. Hurlbut failed to win high elected office, but he gained attention as a state legislator and as a campaigner for more prominent Republicans, including Abraham Lincoln.
During the secession crisis, Lincoln sent Hurlbut to Charleston to informally negotiate with the Confederates who were besieging Fort Sumter. After the war began, Lincoln commissioned Hurlbut as a general of U.S. volunteers. Hurlbut had a mixed military record. He failed to pacify northeastern Missouri in 1861, [End Page 195] but he held the Union left flank at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862 and repulsed a Confederate attack on Corinth at the battle of Hatchie Bridge. From 1863 to 1865, Hurlbut served as a military administrator in Memphis and New Orleans. After the war Hurlbut resumed his political career. His posts included the presidency of the Grand Army of the Republic, a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, and diplomatic missions to Colombia and Peru. In Colombia, Hurlbut tried to secure U.S. rights to build a canal across Panama, and in Peru he unilaterally opposed territorial concessions that Chile demanded as the price of victory in its 1879 war against Bolivia and Peru. Hurlbut died in 1882 while still serving in Peru.
Lash provides detailed evidence that Hurlbut drank too much, committed errors in judgment, and pursued his own financial gain at the expense of the public trust. He cites an impressive array of sources to prove his point, but this zealous prosecution misses an opportunity to consider Hurlbut's connection to the larger events of his times. For example, Hurlbut vacillated between advocating civil rights for African Americans and supporting white supremacist policies. While political expediency (Lash's explanation) surely played a role, Hurlbut's career could also be mined for insights into how western Republicans viewed race and slavery. As for Reconstruction, readers learn a great deal about Hurlbut's involvement in cotton smuggling, but very little about how the Union military administered occupied Memphis and New Orleans. Nevertheless, Lash has succeeded in producing the first full-length scholarly biography of Hurlbut. As such, A Politician Turned General represents a valuable addition to scholarship on the Republican party and the Union military.