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Tarnished Eagles: The Courts-Martial of Fifty Union Colonels and Lieutenant Colonels, by Thomas P. Lowry, Stackpole Books, (717) 796-0411, 272 pages, $24.95.

With this follow-up to The Stories the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War and The Civil War Bawdy Houses of Washington, D.C., Dr. Thomas Lowry has firmly established himself as the dean of (as the publisher puts it) “the burgeoning study of Civil War misbehavior.” Whether or not that’s a dubious honor I leave to the reader to determine, but I can say with certainty that Lowry has at least earned his status with diligent, scholarly work exhibited in solid writing.

Tarnished Eagles is the product of great labor on Lowry’s part: the indexing of all Union courts-martial convened during the war. This is a critical fact to consider when judging this volume. Lowry did not simply go plowing through court-martial records in search of the most lurid, provocative stories. Instead, he has made his way through virtually all of the records (100,000 of them), and from these he has selected a sample that support theses that emerged as part of the larger project. That fact lends the book, and Lowry’s assertions, great credibility, for they are offered with the benefit of considerable context.

In narrating the alleged misdeeds of 50 Union colonels, Lowry helps us draw conclusions about just how unusual this war of ours was and just how incongruous was the idea of putting lawyers, doctors, merchants, and politicians in charge of neophyte soldiers toting rifles and bayonets. In an excellent introduction and epilogue, Lowry discusses the forces that put so many unqualified souls in such important positions and the consequences of those undeserved appointments.

The cases offer insights into not just the commanders, but the commanded, too. Many of the cases narrated in Lowry’s book ended in “not guilty” verdicts. Those cases often reflect on the mores and values of the failed accusers and thereby offer important insights into the inner workings of Civil War-era society. For those of us who have worked in corporate or governmental America, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that we Americans have changed little in 135 years. As you read these pages, you will recognize some of these characters as the same personalities you work with in your job each day. Every modern organization has them. One can hardly resist the lament that it’s too bad we can’t court-martial them, too!

The book’s format is simple and straightforward: each case is a chapter. Lowry resorts to something of a formulaic recounting of testimony, consideration, verdict, and (when imposed) sentence. His writing is generally smooth and often insightful. The reading, however, can be a bit difficult; taken in large chunks, the cases tend to merge. That criticism is not, however, meant to dissuade. The book’s structure tailors it perfectly for bedtime reading.

Despite the scholarly merits, for most readers the book’s appeal will be its journey into the tawdry, cowardly, obscene, and insubordinate. As modern television proves every night, we simply love the underside of human nature. These pages are replete with womanizers, drunkards, and punctilious bureaucrats. The adventures and misadventures of these people make for entertaining reading. Those “Holier than Thou” among us will laugh uproariously at some of the book’s characters. The more thoughtful among us will perhaps flinch when they recognize some of their own traits, actions, or lusts on trial.

So, this is a good book. But it does stimulate a fear: are we witnessing the emergence of a genre that is the historiographical counterpart to today’s Jerry Springer? Just as modern television has delved evermore into the dysfunctional, so we see history now doing the same. To some extent this is a welcome antidote to the decidedly fawning school of historical writers that has emerged over the last decade–a body of writers who can only see their subjects in the most positive light. But we should all be watchful that the trend does not swing too far. (Some might say it already has.)

Lowry has taken the genre of the historical underside to its proper scholarly limits; he has coupled the lurid and the weird with excellent research and analysis. We will soon, however, teeter on the edge of gratuitous. The “burgeoning study of Civil War misbehavior” ought not to burgeon too much. A sad day it will be when you turn off Jerry Springer to curl up with the latest Civil War book and not see much of a difference.

John Hennessy
Fredericksburg, Virginia