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Thomas Ewing, Jr.: Frontier Lawyer and Civil War General

by Ronald D. Smith, University of Missouri Press, 2008, $44.95

The name of Ohioan Thomas Ewing Jr. crops up in many Civil War books, mostly in reference to events in Civil War Kansas and to his more famous adopted brother William T. Sherman. Now, from first-time author Ronald Smith, comes a welcome and complete look at the man: Thomas Ewing Jr.: Frontier Lawyer and Civil War General.

Ewing’s career began in the post-Mexican War White House of Zachary Taylor, where his father was serving as Secretary of the Interior. While pursuing a career in law, he wound up in Leavenworth, Kansas, and got the chance to rub shoulders with firebrands such as Charles Robinson and Samuel Pomeroy in the midst of that region’s heated territorial agitation. It was Ewing who successfully defended political zealot and future Senator James H. Lane on murder charges—duty that propelled him into the fight for Kansas’ admission to the Union as a free state and helped make him the chief justice of the territory’s supreme court.

In 1862, Ewing followed his brothers into the Union Army, and quickly moved up from recruiting duty to a colonelcy in the 11th Kansas Cavalry. He earned plaudits for his service during the Union victory at Prairie Grove, Ark., in December. Elevated to brigadier general, he took command of the District of the Border, the hotly contested Kansas-Missouri border area around Kansas City.

But exasperated by two years of inconclusive, hit-and-run fighting, and criticized following William Quantrill’s bloody sack of Lawrence, Kan., in 1863, Ewing concluded that “nothing short of total devastation of the districts [that] are…the haunts of guerrillas will be sufficient to put a stop to the evil.” From this sentiment sprang his controversial and harsh General Order No. 11, which scorched four Missouri counties deemed to be hotbeds of Confederate sympathy. His brother “Cump” would soon introduce that policy on a broader scale in Georgia and South Carolina.

Preferring politics to military laurels, Ewing turned down Sherman’s offer of division command for the unfolding Union campaign against Atlanta. But he did find himself in the way of Confederate Maj. Gen. Sterling Price during the ex-governor’s last-ditch invasion of Missouri in 1864. In late September, Ewing’s tiny but stubborn force bloodied Price at Fort Davidson. Ewing in turn was praised for the effort, and his wife would write to him, “Your career is now onward and upward.”

The reputation for cruelty earned with Order No. 11 followed Ewing, however, and he would never achieve his main political goal: a seat in the U.S. Senate. A friend of martyred President Abraham Lincoln, Ewing made headlines for defending Dr. Samuel Mudd, an alleged conspirator in the Lincoln assassination plot, and emerged as a force in the Democratic Party. Ohio eventually sent him to Congress.

If the name Thomas Ewing Jr. doesn’t ring a bell with readers, this book should remedy that. Although occasionally dry reading, it provides a thorough profile of the well-connected Ewing clan— Washington institution Thomas Sr.; brothers and fellow Civil War generals Charlie and Hugh; and, of course, the celebrated Sherman. More important, it examines the rough-and-tumble politics of Kansas and later the Union’s Trans-Mississippi theater through the eyes of Ewing—a less colorful but dedicated public official than many frontier contemporaries.


Originally published in the July 2009 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here