The Most Fascinating Civil War General You’ve Never Heard Of

General Jo Shelby
General Jo Shelby
I’m not a Civil War buff. But when two different people mentioned to me how much they enjoyed reading a new book on the life of Confederate General Joseph Orville ‘Jo’ Shelby, I decided to get myself a copy.

General Jo Shelby’s March, a just-published book written by Anthony Arthur [ISBN-13: 978-1400068302 — also available in a Kindle edition], is quite a read. It tells the story of how General Shelby, rather than surrender to the Union, led a regiment of soldiers from Arkansas through Texas and into Mexico. In a wild and dangerous journey, they marched all the way to Mexico City, where the soldiers offered themselves up in the service of Emperor Maximilian’s army.

While the Emperor turned down this offer, he did invite the Confederate soldiers to stay on in Mexico and become farmers. The expatriate colonies that sprung up there were not as successful nor as long-lasting as Rio Americana in Brazil, but more than a few of the soldiers ended up settling in Mexico for good.

General Shelby turns out to be one of the Civil War’s most fascinating characters. Born into wealth and position in Kentucky, he struck out as a young man for Missouri, where he found early success in farming and business (hemp and lumber), and before long had built his own white-columned mansion on the banks of the Missouri River in Waverly.

But the cross-border skirmishes between pro- and anti-slavery forces in Kansas and Missouri during the 1850s led to the destruction of Shelby’s sawmill operations. Shelby himself gained fame for leading retaliatory raids into Kansas. When the Civil War finally came in 1861, Shelby chose to fight for the Southern cause, even as most of his Kentucky relatives remained Unionists.

[People tend to forget that Midwestern Missouri was for years a state with distinct southern sympathies. Even as late as 1956, when the Republican Eisenhower was handily winning re-election, Missouri joined with only six Deep-South states – Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North and South Carolina – in voting against the party of Lincoln.]

Throughout the war, Shelby was to command forces in the so-called Trans-Mississippi Department of the Confederacy, even as his wife and children were forced to flee Missouri for Kentucky after their mansion was torched and their lands plundered. For Shelby and many of his men, the decision to run for the Mexican border was easier to make because there was so little to return to at home.

Anthony Arthur’s recounting of the confusion that characterized the western theater of the Civil War, and later the harrowing march through Texas and Mexico, is an exciting and gripping read. Particularly moving is his description of Shelby’s soldiers as they reached Eagle Pass on the Texas-Mexico border. In a ceremony on the banks of the Rio Grande, a tattered Confederate flag – one that had been with the regiment through many battles and skirmishes in Missouri, Arkansas and Texas – was folded for the last time and placed into the river, the waters enveloping the flag as it disappeared from view.

Once in Mexico, Shelby had his wife and eight children join him, where they lived for several years. But as Emperor Maximilian’s position became ever more untenable and the French army decided to ditch the country, it became increasingly clear that staying in Mexico was not an option. While some of the ex-Confederates decided to migrate to Cuba, Brazil or other foreign lands, Shelby made the decision to return to the United States.

Renouncing his support of slavery and pledging allegiance to America, Shelby now commenced the second part of his life. He took up residence again in Missouri, and was eventually named marshal for Western Missouri by President Grover Cleveland. This was not a trivial responsibility, as this was the region where the notorious Jesse James Gang and other outlaws roamed.

When the general passed away in 1894, more than 2,000 people attended his funeral and 4,000 joined in the procession to the cemetery. As reported by the Kansas City Star, Bill Hunter, an African American who as a slave boy had been purchased to be Shelby’s manservant, led the general’s riderless horse with its empty saddle, boots and spurs to the burial site at Forest Hill Cemetery. It was a poignant farewell for two men who had remained friends for life.

In the conclusion of his book, Anthony Arthur sums up the General’s life this way:

“Shelby was the model of the gifted, principled man who had fought bravely for a doomed cause, and who ultimately reconciled himself not only to defeat but to the fact that his cause had been fatally flawed by the greatest evil in American life, chattel slavery … in classic American fashion, he reinvented himself and showed the way for others to do the same.”

In the end, not a bad legacy at all.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s