Book Review: John P. Slough, the Forgotten Civil War General

 

Richard L. Miller
John P. Slough, The Forgotten Civil War General
University of New Mexico Press
$34.95

Quick, without researching the answer on the internet, name the general in charge of Union forces at the Battle of Glorietta Pass in March, 1862? Hence the name of the biography by Richard L. Miller, past president of the Puget Sound Civil War Round Table and frequent presenter at Civil War round tables and groups around the United States.

John P. Slough, a Ohioan by birth, had a storied political career, derailed often by his hairline trigger temper and personality, is the answer to the winning commander of the pivotal battle of Glorietta Pass. Slough, who served in the Ohio legislature, was a lawyer and important figure in both Kansas and Colorado territory, commissioned brigadier general, fought in New Mexico and Harpers Ferry, was a “well-exemplified…vision; his is a story of great opportunity and failed ambition.” According to his biographer, Slough “fulfilled that obligation to pursue success. His life evokes conflicting emotions..” (pg. xv).

Not only has the exploits of Slough and his life received scant attention, for instance, the Ohioan was the military governor of Alexandria from 1862 through the end of the war and he also sat on the court-martial of Major General Fitz John Porter. Events during the Civil War that does not make it into most general histories. Yet, he played a major role in events that “have received scant attention from historians” including the Wyandotte (Kansas) Constitutional Convention, the defense of Harpers Ferry during Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s strike in 1862, and his contributions to New Mexico, both during the war and after.

One of the drawbacks from reconstructing the life of Slough was the absence of personal papers, memoirs, or sources penned by the Ohioan. A scattering of letters, quotes from newspapers, official orders, and insights of Slough from contemporaries are the basis for primary sources. Miller acknowledges that impediment but does a thorough job of research to complete the picture of Slough by using similar personas with the same experiences. A good example is John Ingalls, a 24-year old attorney from Massachusetts who relocated to Kansas in 1858. As Miller writes, “there is no record of Slough’s journey to Leavenworth, although it must have been similar to the tiresome and uncomfortable one described by…Ingalls” (pg. 53).

Another tough aspect of writing a biography is to walk that fine line of balance and let the sources and facts dictate the life of the person. Biographers must show the positives and the foibles of the subject to stay balanced and Miller excels with this. He provides a complete picture of who Slough was, from his outbursts in Columbus, Ohio as a state congressman to his haughty demeanor in Colorado that alienated a majority of his command, the 1st Colorado. The author provides a critical look into Slough’s administration of Alexandria, Virginia during the Civil War and reasoning behind his actions.

Slough, from a prosperous Ohio family with political connections may have been destined for a greater place–major generalship in the Civil War, a higher political office in Ohio–if his “character flaws that sabotaged his plans” (pg. 226). “He came close to realizing his ambition for greatness, but in the end, his personal shortcomings thwarted all of his dreams” (pg. 226).

One can easily relate to that closing line.

Miller’s biography of Slough, in closing, is a must read for those interested in New Mexico during the beginning or after the conclusion of the Civil War. Or to understand an adherent to the 19th century Democratic Party who never shook that allegiance yet tried to reconcile that with the world he lived in. Miller has done the work to make Slough a less forgotten Civil War general.

or more on this book, read Chris Mackowski’s BookChat interview with author Richard Miller from June 2021 by clicking here.

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