Book Review: James Montgomery: Abolitionist Warrior


by Robert C. Conner

Philadelphia: Casemate, 2022. Pp. x, 210. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 1636241425

A Militant Abolitionist

James Montgomery (1814-1871) was an unusual person, who is frequently regarded as more of an abolitionist hooligan or butcher rather than a Civil War officer or hero. His war service followed a somewhat uncommon track from notorious Kansas Jayhawker, to amphibious coastal marauder, to orthodox regimental and brigade- battlefield leader. In what is the first ever biography of Montgomery, Conner, earlier the author of an excellent biography of Gordon Granger, gives us a factually objective look at the man, portrayed in the 1989 film Glory as the vicious colonel who burned down Darien, Georgia.

Known as the “fighting preacher” and the “guerrilla chieftain,” Montgomery believed civil war to free the slaves was both unavoidable and warranted.

Though Montgomery was a religion-based antislavery man of action who allied himself with like-thinking men such as John Brown in Kansas, Conner sees him as less fanatical in his zealotry, a man who condemned the most terroristic of Brown's activities. Throughout the "Bleeding Kansas" hostilities, however, and during the initial fighting in the Civil War along the Missouri-Kansas border, Montgomery (who led the 3rd Regiment of James Lane's Kansas Brigade) oversaw many deeds of unruly looting as well as the murders of some non-combatants and captured enemies. Framing those events as hard to defend consequences of Montgomery's personality, Connor nevertheless argues that such deeds of viciousness should be contextually understood as reflections of the viciousness all too often manifested by partisans on both sides in the Border States.

Montgomery’s war record was also quite contentious. One of the first officers to lead black troops, he actively recruited them and frequently led raids behind enemy lines to encourage slaves to desert plantations, a form of economic warfare he felt would cripple the South’s capacity to wage war. In one of his most successful raids near the Combahee River, he freed over 756 slaves, but was also censured for burning civilian homes. As commander, he could be harsh. When colonel of the African American 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, he summarily shot a soldier for desertion without the formality of a court martial. Militarily, however, Montgomery was generally praised by his superiors for bravery under fire, turning black recruits into cohesive combatants and leading them personally in major engagements at Olustee and Westport, and in many smaller actions.

This work concentrates on Montgomery’s command of the 2nd South Carolina Infantry. In this capacity, he participated in operations alongside such famous figures as Harriet Tubman and Robert Gould Shaw. Montgomery’s work with Tubman, during a raid on Combahee Ferry near Beaufort, South Carolina in June 1863, liberated over 750 people from slavery, men and women already declared free by the Emancipation Proclamation. Conner notes that the most recent interpretation of that operation, the 2019 film Harriet, makes no mention of Montgomery’s role.

Conner makes a good case that Montgomery's most impressive performance during the war was during the Battle of Olustee (Feb. 20, 1864), in which he commanded a reserve brigade of two black regiments (the famous 54th Massachusetts and the 35th U.S.C.T.), which put up a sharp, impressive rear-guard action, and awards him the lion's share of credit for the Union defeat not becoming a complete disaster.

After Olustee, his health impaired and no promotion forthcoming, Montgomery resigned and returned home to Kansas. But that Autumn, when Confederate General Sterling Price led his famous "Raid" into Missouri, Montgomery hastily raised a Kansas militia regiment, which conducted itself with some distinction during the campaign's climactic battle at Westport (Oct. 23), and he received plaudits in official reports by his superiors. Soon after, Montgomery again resigned from the army, returning to his farm and preaching on weekends, earning a reputation as a charismatic preacher who drew people to his sermons as he had drawn soldiers to enlist to end slavery.

Connor’s writing is concise, and his study is wide-ranging. Unfortunately, the book could benefit from some of maps and images to assist readers in following troop movements and get a look at some of the key people involved. And to avoid Wikipedia as a source is recommended.

Overall, this a good biography of a man whom Conner paints as a flawed hero, sincere in his convictions but often heavy handed in his method, with a deserved reputation for making “Old Testament” style warfare.

James Montgomery: Abolitionist Warrior is recommended for anyone with an interest in abolitionism, the Civil War, or the U.S.C.T.


Our Reviewer: David Marshall has been a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. His previous reviews here include Stephen A. Swails, The Great ‘What Ifs’ of the American Civil War Chained to History, Grant vs. Lee: Favorite Stories and Fresh Perspectives from the Historians at Emerging Civil War, Spectacle of Grief, Braxton Bragg: The Most Hated Man of the Confederacy, First Fallen: The Life of Colonel Ellsworth, Their Maryland, The Lion of Round Top, Rites of Retaliation, Animal Histories of the Civil War Era, Benjamin Franklin Butler, Dreams of Victory: General P. G. T. Beauregard, Bonds of War, Early Struggles for Vicksburg, True Blue, Civil War Witnesses and Their Books, Love and Duty, When Hell Came To Sharpsburg, Lost Causes, Six Miles From Charleston, Five Minutes to Hell and "If We Are Striking for Pennsylvania".



Note: James Montgomery is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: David Marshall   

Buy it at



Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close