General Jo Shelby: Undefeated Rebel

General Jo Shelby: Undefeated Rebel

by Daniel O'Flaherty


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This vivid work, first published by UNC Press in 1954, reveals General Joseph Orville Shelby as one of the best Confederate cavalry leaders—and certainly the most colorful.
Born in Lexington, Kentucky, but drawn by the promise of the growing West, Shelby became one of the richest men in Missouri. Siding with the Confederacy at the outbreak of the Civil War, he organized his Iron Brigade of cavalry—whose ranks included Frank and Jesse James—taught his men a slashing frontier style of fighting, and led them on incredible raids against Federal forces in Missouri. When the Confederacy fell, Shelby refused to surrender and instead took his command to Mexico, where they fought in support of the emperor Maximilian. Upon his return to Missouri, Shelby became an immensely popular figure in the state, eventually attaining the status of folk hero, a living symbol of the Civil War in the West.

"O'Flaherty has written a first-rate book . . . combining careful scholarship with the ability to tell a story in an engaging manner.—Saturday Review

"An interesting and readable life story of a long neglected Confederate general.—Military Affairs

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807848784
Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date: 06/19/2000
Edition description: 1
Pages: 464
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Daniel O'Flaherty was a reporter, radio executive, and magazine writer who lived in Richmond, Virginia.

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General Jo Shelby

Undefeated Rebel
By Daniel O'Flaherty

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2000 University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8078-4878-4


Daniel O'Flaherty's biography of Joseph O. Shelby could easily have been lost in the shuffle when it first appeared in 1954. It was one of at least two dozen biographies of Civil War generals published from the late 1940s to the late 1950s, roughly five years on either side of his own book. Burke Davis published a notable biography of Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson in that same year, as did Joseph H. Parks of Edmund Kirby Smith. The longer span of ten years brought the appearance of such classic works as T. Harry Williams's biography of Pierre G. T. Beauregard, Hans L. Trefousse's of Benjamin Butler, Jay Monaghan's of George A. Custer, Millard K. Bushong's of Jubal A. Early, Lloyd Lewis's of Ulysses S. Grant, Manly Wade Wellman's of Wade Hampton, John P. Dyer's of John Bell Hood, books by both Lenoir Chambers and Frank Vandiver on Jackson, the Gilbert E. Govan and James W. Livingood biography of Joseph E. Johnston, Earl S. Miers's biography of Robert E. Lee, books by Burke Davis on both Lee and James E. B. Stuart, the Donald B. Sanger and Thomas R. Hay biography of James Longstreet, Warren Hassler's biography of George B. McClellan, Elizabeth J. Whaley's of James B. McPherson, Richard O'Conner's of Philip H. Sheridan, and W. A. Swanberg's of Daniel Sickles. An impressive list, to say the least, and all of this even before the explosion of Civil War books that accompanied the war's centennial celebration.

Reviewers divided over the merits of O'Flaherty's portrait of Shelby. Virtually all acknowledged that O'Flaherty had produced a dramatic, fast-paced story that kept readers turning the pages. "Mr. O'Flaherty is fortunate in his subject," observed Harnett T. Kane, the popular southern writer and novelist, "and the general is lucky to have so lively and appreciative a biographer." Of course, he added, O'Flaherty's "occasionally over-enthusiastic, over-lush ... style" would not suit everyone, and "professional historians," Kane warned, might "quarrel with some of his points." And indeed some did. They picked at some factual errors, complained about a lack of analysis, and questioned O'Flaherty's use of sources. O'Flaherty, a writer for magazines and radio, had produced "an interesting story for popular consumption," they said, but he had fallen short of writing a definitive biography of the Confederate cavalryman. O'Flaherty would not have gainsaid most of his critics. He confessed to being "neither a military expert nor a scholar." His purpose, O'Flaherty maintained modestly, had been only to "trace the thread of Shelby's life through the kaleidoscopic pattern of American history between the 1840's and 1890's" (p. xviii).

Yet, some fifty years on, O'Flaherty's work has clearly held its own within its generation of Civil War biographies. Newer books about Custer, Grant, Hood, Jackson, Joe Johnston, Lee, Longstreet, McClellan, Sheridan, and Stuart have nudged aside earlier interpretations of their subjects, but O'Flaherty's remains the only biography of the man he called the "greatest cavalry chieftain" of the war (p. xvii). And it is more than a biography. O'Flaherty also intended that his book should attract attention to the war in the Trans-Mississippi-then, as now, a badly neglected subject-and here, too, it continues to serve as a standard source. O'Flaherty might have cited his sources more precisely, researched more thoroughly some features of Shelby's prewar and postwar careers, double-checked a few more dates, scrutinized his maps more closely, and dealt with Shelby's wartime reputation more satisfactorily; but given the sources available to him, and considering historical interpretations of the war at the time he wrote, there remains good reason to admire the finished product.

The real question in judging any biography is this: Has the author captured the essence of the subject? In the case of O'Flaherty, the answer must be yes. Even his initial critics acknowledged as much. "Mr. O'Flaherty has done a creditable job in reconstructing Shelby's early life," announced one reviewer, "and he does present a convincing picture of Shelby as a man and as a soldier." To O'Flaherty, Shelby was "a man of savage temper" (p. 45). "He fought like a man who invented fighting," added the biographer, "and the men of the Missouri Cavalry Brigade looked on him as the perfect commanding officer: colorful and dashing, but with a recklessness so shrewd that it amounted almost to caution" (p. 163). This accords with everything his contemporaries said about Jo Shelby. "He looked liked somebody," submitted an Arkansas soldier. "He looked like someone who had something to him" (p. 28). Or, somewhat metaphorically, a former Union army officer offered this appraisal: "He was not what might be termed a round man, uniform and regular in his mental and moral composition. On the contrary, he was angular to acuteness. It was the sharp angles, the abrupt curvatures in his character that created the constant surprises in his career and lent to his life its singular attractiveness and picturesqueness" (p. 400).

Born in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1830, Joseph Orville Shelby was a rope manufacturer, not a soldier, by trade. Having been educated at Transylvania University in his hometown and in Philadelphia, the twenty-one-year-old Shelby moved to Missouri, where he became a planter. Shelby's civil war, like that of many Missourians, began in Bleeding Kansas, during the 1850s. Shelby was a hardened "border ruffian" long before he accepted a captain's commission in the Missouri State Guard. He was a colonel before the first year of the war had passed, a general by the end of 1863, and a participant in every major engagement of the war in Arkansas and Missouri. Like Sterling Price, a native Virginian who had also moved west in his early twenties, Shelby considered Missouri his home and spent the war trying to win it for the Confederacy. His most notable effort came when he led his "Iron Brigade" of Missouri volunteers on the longest cavalry raid of the war. From September 22 to November 3, 1863, Shelby and his men romped 1,500 miles through the state, inflicted more than 1,000 casualties on Union forces, and captured or destroyed $2 million worth of enemy supplies and property.

The surrender of the Confederate States did not mean the end of the rebellion for this "undefeated rebel." Shelby, along with Price and many other western Confederates, fled to Mexico after the war, an episode to which O'Flaherty devotes one-fourth of his narrative (about half the book covers the war years). Upon hearing of the Confederate capitulation in Virginia, Shelby announced that he would never live under Yankee rule. "No! no!" he exclaimed to his men. "We will do this: we will hang together, we will keep our organization, our arms, our discipline, our hatred of oppression, until one universal shout goes up from an admiring age that this Missouri Cavalry Division preferred exile to submission, death to dishonor." He and what remained of the Iron Brigade crossed the Rio Grande and offered their services to Maximilian. Political expediency forced the French puppet to refuse their assistance, but he generously offered free land in the Cordoba Valley to the hundreds of ex-Confederates then pouring across the border. Shelby's family soon joined him, and he did not return to the United States until the fall of Maximilian in June 1867.

Shelby lost much of his feistiness over the next three decades, but not his reputation as a Confederate hero, and he never abandoned his adventurous style of living. He became involved in Democratic politics (although he consistently refused to run for public office), tried several business ventures (with only modest success), assisted former rebel soldiers (including Frank James, the outlaw), and, having accepted an appointment as federal marshal for western Missouri from President Grover Cleveland, helped break the Pullman Strike of 1893. His appointment as marshal also forced him finally to take a postwar oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States. But, then, after he returned to Missouri in 1867, Shelby never showed signs of bitterness toward the North. In that sense, O'Flaherty's portrayal of him as an undefeated rebel masks an important subtlety. Shelby's refusal to admit defeat in war did not imply blind devotion to rebellion. Rather, he was undefeated in the sense of remaining undaunted, capable of rising above the ruins of the Confederacy, maintaining his personal dignity, and accepting the political and economic necessity of sectional reconciliation.

It is an interesting distinction, only partially realized in O'Flaherty's biography, but an important one for understanding Shelby's postwar years-and perhaps something about his character. Certainly Shelby repented his role in Bleeding Kansas. "I went there to kill Free State men," he confessed in 1897. "I did kill them. I am not ashamed of myself for having done so, but then times were different from what they are now.... No Missourian had any business there with arms in his hands. The policy that sent us there was damnable and the trouble we started on the border bore fruit for ten years." The passions aroused by the debate over slavery made men "irresponsible," and, Shelby concluded, "I now see I was so myself" (p. 44).

Yet, like most old Confederates, Shelby could not-or would not-fully reject the cause of his youth. "We failed but we (the South) have the satisfaction of Knowing that no people on Earth endured or fought more from patriotic desires," he wrote to a former comrade in 1885. "It is over, and as we all surrendered it behooves us all to abide by the terms imposed" (p. 353). Shelby became active in the United Confederate Veterans, which kept him and his reputation firmly tied to the Lost Cause. He served as the commander of the Missouri Division of the UCV in the years before his death, and just months before his passing in 1897, he attended a grand Confederate reunion in Richmond. Speaking briefly to the convention, which had gathered to lay the cornerstone of a monument to Jefferson Davis, Shelby remained a symbol of the Confederate Trans-Mississippi: "We are here, as ex-Confederates, ... and I stand here as a representative of the Confederate cause west of the Mississippi, and I speak for the Missourians when I say that this for all time shall be our Mecca" (p. 393).

Was Shelby, as O'Flaherty insists, the greatest cavalryman of the war? Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, who had fought for three years against Jeb Stuart in Virginia before vainly crossing swords with Shelby, apparently thought so. "Shelby was the best cavalry general of the South. Under other conditions, he would have been one of the best in the world," attested the Union commander (p. 000). Sterling Price knew Shelby's worth, too, going so far as to call him a "brilliant and heroic officer" and the "best cavalry officer" he had ever seen. Even more modest historical estimates rate Shelby as the "finest [cavalry commander] of the Trans-Mississippi." Clearly his men idealized him. "You've heard of Shelby's Raid?" asked aging veterans. "Jeb Stuart's Ride around McClellan? Hell, brother, Jo Shelby rode around missouri!" And they composed songs to glorify his feats:

Ho Boys! Make a Noise! The Yankees are afraid! The river's up, hell's to pay- Shelby's on a Raid! (p. 189)

And if men are worthy of their leader, then we cannot discount one historian's judgment that the Iron Brigade was "perhaps the best cavalry unit in the West."

Any estimation of Shelby and his reputation must also include an evaluation of Shelby's Boswell, John N. Edwards. Edwards first met Shelby in the mid-1850s, served as his adjutant for most of the war, and developed an admiration for his commander that bordered on hero worship. He wrote most of Shelby's after-action reports and became his alter ego. Most important, Edwards wrote three books about the war, two of which, Shelby and His Men and Shelby's Expedition to Mexico, chronicled the wartime and early postwar history of the Iron Brigade. A prominent Missouri newspaper editor, columnist, and editorial writer, Edwards was notorious for his purple prose and his romanticized view of all things Confederate. Still, his books tell us most of what we know about Shelby's personal life during and immediately after the war. Historians dealing with Shelby must come to terms with Edwards, and while virtually all warn about the need to proceed with caution, they concede the general accuracy of his accounts. O'Flaherty, with his own penchant for colorful language, acknowledged that Edwards seldom missed an opportunity to "gild the lily," but he joined with other historians in defending Edwards's books, especially Shelby's Expedition to Mexico. "It is a matter of sober fact that Shelby's whole career was one long sequence of highly improbable, but well authenticated, historical events," explained O'Flaherty; "and it is equally probable that Major Edwards strayed no further from the truth than was considered permissible in his time for a Southern officer and gentleman" (p. xix).

Of course, there is very likely more to Shelby's story than Edwards revealed or than O'Flaherty could have appreciated in the 1950s. Any future biographer will have to ground Shelby more securely in the social, economic, and, yes, even the military history of the period. O'Flaherty interpreted Shelby's life through the "kaleidoscopic pattern of American history between the 1840's and the 1890's," but kaleidoscopes are notoriously vulnerable to the least shift or tremor. Research in areas important to our understanding of Shelby has enhanced our knowledge of Shelby's world in ways that must change old perspectives on him. Post-1950s research on the American economy, slavery, the territorial issue, wartime military strategy, wartime political strategy, guerrilla warfare, postwar Confederate emigration, Reconstruction, sectional reconciliation, and any number of more narrowly defined themes has altered historical assumptions that O'Flaherty would have taken for granted.

But the incorporation of these new insights into Shelby's story lies in the future, and any new search to understand Shelby must begin with O'Flaherty. His Shelby is as real and vital a force as one can hope to find in the world of biography, and his skillful description of the Civil War in the tumultuous and ferocious Trans-Mississippi is powerful. Reading O'Flaherty, it is easy to understand the devotion and enthusiasm Shelby's men felt for this Confederate warrior: "Ho Boys! Make a Noise! ... Shelby's on a Raid!"

-Daniel E. Sutherland, December 1999


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What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

An interesting and readable life story of a long neglected Confederate general.—Military Affairs

A biography of one of the most colorful Confederate cavalrymen who fought in the Trans-Mississippi Department during the Civil War. . . . The book is attractively written and holds the reader closely to the end.—American Historical Review

Fascinating. . . . O'Flaherty has written a first-rate book . . . combining careful scholarship with the ability to tell a story in an engaging manner.—Bruce Catton, Saturday Review

For those interested in this theater of the Civil War… [General Jo Shelby: Undefeated Rebel] offers an enjoyable account of some of its most important campaigns.—Post Library

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