- Commander and Builder of Western Forts: The Life and Times of Major General Henry C. Merriam, 1862-1901
In this well-written book, Jack Stokes Ballard clearly demonstrates his respect for the subject of his biography, General Henry C. Merriam, "the quintessential military man of nineteenth-century American western history" (200). With a command of the material and clear and concise prose, Ballard brings Merriam's thirty-eight year career in the United States Army to life and situates him at the center of several critical moments in American history from the Civil War to the Spanish-American War. This volume will be of interest to Western historians as well as other scholars of late nineteenth-century America.
According to Ballard, Merriam was "one of a long list of relatively anonymous military men who were builders, men who in one way or another significantly changed the Wild West by establishing military posts, protecting expanding rail lines, and striving to maintain an uneasy peace between settlers and Indians" (ix). Born in Maine, Merriam's military career began in 1862 when he volunteered to [End Page 336] fight in the Civil War. He joined and served in the famed 20th Maine Volunteers before transferring to the Western Theater where he took command of African American troops.
After the war, Merriam's military service shifted to the West. His first commands were in the New Mexico Territory and Texas, where he served at several locations, including Fort Bliss (El Paso), Fort Brown (Brownsville), and Fort McIntosh (Laredo). While in Texas, Merriam scouted positions to place troops and "demonstrated unusual and successful diplomatic skills" (84) in dealing with border crossing federal Mexican troops and revolutionaries, all the while attempting to protect American citizens and their interests in the border town of Nuevo Laredo. Merriam's time in Texas was also marred with tragedy when his first wife and daughter were killed in a flash flood. Their bodies had to be buried at Fort Concho in San Angelo.
Merriam left Texas for the Pacific Northwest where he scouted locations, built and commanded forts, and dealt with Native Americans, striking laborers, and settlers. During the Spanish-American War, he was responsible for facilitating the transportation of troops and supplies to American forces in the Philippines. Merriam retired in 1901 with the rank of major general.
From the dramatic opening in front of Fort Blakeley outside Mobile, Alabama (where Merriam's actions earned him the Medal of Honor), to the Great Plains, where the general tried to maintain peace with Indian tribes and quell labor unrest, this sweeping biography covers a lot of ground and keeps the reader's attention. Unlike other biographies, which have a tendency to lose focus, Ballard sums up different sections of Merriam's life at the end of key chapters. This very welcome addition links Merriam's actions to a broader narrative of nineteenth-century American life and provides an analytic aspect to the biography.
Ballard's description of the general's challenges as a fort commander—dealing with sanitation, disease, and discipline—reveals the unglamorous, often underappreciated, and yet absolutely critical tasks that were essential to life on the western frontier. At points, however, Ballard allows the documents—official reports, communications, and journal entries—to speak for themselves at length and these extensive block quotations can be distracting. Overall, however, this is a very good book. Ballard sheds light on the life of a man who was instrumental in western expansion and whose position placed him squarely in some of the most dramatic events in American history.