James Carson. Against the Grain: Colonel Henry M. Lazelle and the U.S. Army. North Texas Military Biography and Memoir Series. Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2015. 432 pp. $32.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-57441-611-4.
Reviewed by Mark Eickhoff (University of Indianapolis)
Published on H-War (January, 2018)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Well-written and well-documented biographies of people who led interesting lives are useful for teaching American history, especially in undergraduate classrooms. They personalize the period and let students follow the life and experiences of someone who participated in the events being studied. James Carson’s Against the Grain: Colonel Henry M. Lazelle and the United States Army is just such a biography.
Henry Lazelle (1832-1917) was not famous, like Philip Sheridan or George Armstrong Custer, but he was one of the countless thousands of individuals who served in the nineteenth-century US Army and had his own unique experiences during a military career that spanned nearly forty years, including the Civil War. Carson, who is Lazelle’s great grandson, uses Lazelle’s personal papers and letters, family reminiscences and stories, official records, period sources, and conventional historical scholarship to paint a comprehensive picture of Lazelle and his life. Despite his personal relationship to his subject, Carson does a good job in showing Lazelle as he was and not covering up or glossing over the unflattering aspects of his life or character. Indeed, as the title Against the Grain implies, Lazelle was someone who tended to be rather abrasive; could easily alienate others, including his superiors; and was willing to go against the system if it suited him. He once earned a rebuke from General Ulysses S. Grant for his “captious spirit” in refusing to take an order delivered by a lower-ranking officer (p. 134).
Lazelle was born in Boston, Massachusetts, orphaned at the age of five, and raised by his older sister and her husband. He entered the US Military Academy at West Point in 1850. He was suspended for a year due to a variety of conduct and academic problems and did not graduate until 1855. Among his roommates at West Point was James Abbott MacNeill Whistler, who was expelled from the academy for similar reasons but would go on to become a famous artist. Following graduation from West Point, Lazelle was stationed at posts in New Mexico and Texas on the Santa Fe Trail and campaigned against the Apaches.
When Texas seceded from the Union in 1861 at the start of the Civil War, Lazelle was one of only three officers in his regiment to remain loyal to the Union. He was arrested by his former comrades and became a prisoner of war. After several months, Lazelle was given parole and allowed to return to the Union. Because of his parole, Lazelle could not take up arms against the South and had to be assigned nonmilitary duties until he could be officially exchanged for a Confederate officer prisoner of war. Lazelle was assigned to the US Army Commissary General for Prisoners of War and was responsible for helping oversee the Union’s network of prisoner-of-war camps and serving as a prisoner exchange agent. He held these positions until early 1863.
Following his release from parole, Lazelle secured a position as a colonel in command of a newly formed volunteer cavalry regiment, the 16th New York (Sprague’s Light Cavalry). This ill-fated cavalry unit spent most of its existence as part of the defenses surrounding Washington, DC, and served as an ineffective foil to Confederate General John Mosby’s raiders. Lazelle resigned his volunteer commission in October 1864 after a particularly bad engagement with Mosby and claimed that his own unit was just a dumping ground for poor and ineffective officers and that he received no support from his superiors in trying to hold them accountable. He resumed his regular army rank and spent the rest of the war back in the prisoners-of-war office.
Following the Civil War, Lazelle was assigned occupation duty in the South. In 1872, he went west again, where he was involved with the 1873 Yellowstone Expedition and the pursuit of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse following the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Returning east, he was assigned as commandant of the Corps of Cadets at West Point. While there, Lazelle was involved in one of the more sordid racial incidents that took place at the academy in the nineteenth century. Johnson Whitaker, one of the few African Americans to attend West Point, claimed unknown assailants had broken into his room and savagely beaten him. Lazelle’s investigation concluded that Whitaker must have staged the incident himself because the other cadets had maintained their own innocence. Whitaker was then court-martialed in a sensationalized trial and expelled. Lazelle’s own tour at West Point was ended earlier than normal in 1882 after a rocky relationship with the academy superintendent, General O. O. Howard. Lazelle was then assigned to posts in New Mexico, Arizona, and California, and was named the US observer to a series of wargames being held by the British Army in India in 1885.
Lazelle’s next assignment took him to Washington, DC, where he was put in charge of the War Department’s compilation of the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. Under his leadership, the office increased its production of war-related records and he obtained his “15 minutes of fame” when a political controversy erupted after an unofficial record was mistakenly included in one of the volumes. It was a roll of honor claiming to list individuals from the 15th Pennsylvania (Anderson’s) cavalry regiment who were present at the battle of Stones River. It was alleged that not everyone listed may have been present and it failed to list some people who were present. This was no small thing in the “bloody shirt” era of post-Civil War American politics. Lazelle had to testify before Congress about the matter and was then transferred by the army to Arizona. He and his office were subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing when the list they published was validated and determined to be accurate. Lazelle remained assigned to infantry regiments at various posts and finished out his career in 1894, when he was disability retired from the army as a colonel. He later received a post-retirement promotion to brigadier general.
Carson’s book is easily accessible to both popular and academic audiences. The prose is crisp and fast moving, with brief explanations of individuals and events that may not be well known to all readers. There are well-documented endnotes and an extensive bibliography. The book provides a good jumping-off point for larger classroom discussions of the various events in which Lazelle participated and offers students many ideas to develop for further inquiry or research.
The book is not without its flaws, however. Carson’s professional background as an intelligence analyst for the US government is on display throughout the book. He is adept at “connecting the dots” in instances where information may be sketchy or nonexistent. He typically uses caveats in his conclusions in these instances with such phrases as “He must have,” “It is possible that he,” and “we could imagine that he,” to signal he is making an educated guess and does not really know for sure. Carson’s application of this technique is worthy of a general discussion in any classroom: what level of proof should a historian have?
Overall, Against the Grain is a fine effort and succeeds at bringing to life a largely unknown US Army officer. It would be a welcome supplemental reading to any introductory or intermediate course covering the nineteenth-century United States, US West, Civil War, or general US military history.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Mark Eickhoff. Review of Carson, James, Against the Grain: Colonel Henry M. Lazelle and the U.S. Army.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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