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BOOK REVIEWS175 Rebel Raider: The Life of John Hunt Morgan. By James A. Ramage. (Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1986. Pp. xi, 306. $25.00.) John Hunt Morgan is a difficult subject for a biographer. Contemporaries and historians alike have been sharply divided about this charismatic individual and his wartime exploits. Northerners have seen him as the devil incarnate, blasting his partisan warfare as a crime against humanity . Southerners have been split between those who thought he embodied the best of Southern romantic chivalry and those who considered him an undisciplined headline-speaker who wasted valuable men and resources on spectacular but unproductive raids behind Union lines. In Rebel Raider, however, James A. Ramage has produced a thoughtful, balanced biography that attempts neither to vilify nor to glorify Morgan , but to understand him. And hehas succeeded beyond any previous writer in accomplishing this most useful and difficult of historical tasks. Ramage achieves a new appreciation of Morgan's military significance by placing his activities in the context of classic guerilla warfare. Some readers may find jarring quotations from Ché Guevara and Mao Tse-tung in a book about the American Civil War, but Ramage's postViet Nam era discussion of Morgan as guerilla is both stimulating and persuasive. While he appreciates Morgan's contributions to the Confederate war effort, he does not overestimatehis achievements as a guerilla. He admits that, in the last analysis, Morgan was primarily important as symbol and legend, as a dashing knight errant who gave much-needed boosts to flagging Southern morale. Nor does he neglect to note occasions when Morgan committed "inexcusable excesses" in his zeal to disrupt life behind Northern lines. He painstakingly catalogues the times when Morgan's men shot pickets, mistreated prisoners, robbed civilians, and masqueraded as Union troops. In Rebel Raider, the full range of Morgan's successes and failures, his virtues and his vices, emerge from a sophisticated and penetrating analysis, not from any superficial desire to be even-handed. Perhaps the most interesting as well as the most controversial part of Ramage's work, however, is his attempt to understand how Morgan's distinctive personality shaped his guerilla activity. He builds his arguments about Morgan's personality with three main tools: a deep knowledge of Morgan's family background and early life, a heavy reliance upon Bertram Wyatt-Brown's notion of "southern honor," and psychological studies of compulsive gamblers. He portrays Morgan as a man subject to bouts of depression, one whose emotional stability was always fragile. In the notion of Southern honor, however, in his identification with the Southern way of life, he found "his self-esteem, his emotional equilibrium, [and] his very identity" (p. 39). When Southern civilization was threatened, his own psychological adjustment was threatened, and when his home state of Kentucky was occupied by Union troops, the 176CIVIL WAR HISTORY inner conflicts it created in Morgan could only be reconciled through guerilla activity. Morgan's high-risk raids blotted out his depression and recreated the emotional stability that the war had taken from him. It is a fascinating and complex argument, which becomes even more so when Ramage adds to the equation Morgan's marriage in December 1862 to the beautiful "Mattie" Ready. By providing him with the emotional stability that his guerilla activity had previously provided, she may have taken the edge off his military skills and driven him to the last desperate gamble that cost him his life. Perhaps the least persuasive of Ramage's contentions in all of this is that guerilla warfare was entirely consistent with the notion of Southern honor which supposedly drove Morgan's life. Certainly many other Southern men of honor, Robert E. Lee among them, did not find it so. It seems more likely that there were fundamental contradictions between the two ways of life, and the nation undoubtedly benefited immensely from the fact that there were. Ramage might well have asked himself why so few Southerners sought to maintain their honor in the irregular manner of Morgan. He might also have observed just how different the war might have been had more Southerners followed Morgan's example . Nevertheless, Rebel Raider is a stimulating...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 175-176
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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