Book Review: Thomas Ewing Jr.: Frontier Lawyer and Civil War General


by Ronald D. Smith

Columbia: University of Missouri, 2018. Pp. xviii, 380. Illus., map, notes, biblio., index. $26.95 paper. ISBN: 0826221793

A Well-Connected “Amateur” General

Smith, who has written on Civil War and Kansas history, has produced what is apparently the first proper biography of Thomas Ewing, Jr. (1829-1896), in the process expanding the literature on the largely overlook mid-level commanders in the war.

The scion of a powerful political clan, Thomas Ewing was the son of a senator and cabinet member, foster brother and brother-in-law of William T. Sherman, and had two brothers who also became generals. Smith divides the book into three parts.

The first part covers Thomas’s life through the outbreak of the Civil War, during which he built a successful law practice, prospered in railroading, and played a role in securing Kansas as a free state, becoming the new state’s first chief justice.

Smith’s second part covers Thomas’s role in the war. He served mostly in Kansas and Missouri, where he spent most of his time coping with Confederate irregulars and raiders, notably William Quantrill and Stirling Price. This was a tedious, often brutal undertaking, but it did bring promotion to brigadier general and a brevet as a major general.

The balance of the book looks at Ewing’s post war career, in which continued to prosper in law, business, and politics.

As he tells this story, Smith naturally has to spend some time on Thomas’s distinguished kin as well. He writes well, often with touches of humor, both of which make for an easy read, as he integrates complex issues such as family relationships, religious tensions between Catholics and Protestants, political matters, and, of course, wartime events into a smooth narrative. .

There are some small errors of fact or usage, and Smith is quite wrong in saying that “more than half” the officers in the Army went South; the correct figure is slightly less than a third. In addition, the book really needs more maps, as the ones included are inadequate.

Overall, Thomas Ewing Jr., a volume in the Missouri series “Shades of Blue and Gray”, is a very good read for anyone interested in the war in the west or American social and political life at mid-century.


Note: Thomas Ewing Jr. is also available in hard cover and several e-editions


StrategyPage reviews are shared with The New York Military Affairs Symposium


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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