Book Review: Unhonored Service: The Life of Lee’s Senior Cavalry Commander, Colonel Thomas Taylor Munford, CSA

Unhonored Service: The Life of Lee’s Senior Cavalry Commander, Colonel Thomas Taylor Munford, CSA. By Sheridan R. Barringer. Burlington, NC: Fox Run Publishing, 2022. 409 pp. Softcover, $24.95. Hardcover, $39.95.

Reviewed by Sean Michael Chick

Thomas Taylor Munford had a frustrating career. He entered the Civil War a lieutenant colonel, and after First Manassas received promotion to colonel. Munford did well throughout the Civil War, rendering particularly good service at South Mountain, Chancellorsville, Aldie, and a number of other battles and skirmishes. Yet, despite numerous recommendations for promotion, Munford only advanced to colonel. When the distinct possibility of advancement did come, the war was all but over so the formal promotion to brigadier general never materialized. Adding to the tale, Munford assumed non-temporary division command at the very end of the war. He fought at Dinwiddie Courthouse, Five Forks, and what might be the last tactical success gained by the Army of Northern Virginia with a rouge breakout from Appomattox Court House. In doing so Munford attempted to carry on the fight, being among the last Rebel officers in Virginia to capitulate.

Sheridan R. Barringer examines Munford’s odd and varied military career and life in Unhonored Service: The Life of Lee’s Senior Cavalry Commander, Colonel Thomas Taylor Munford, CSA. The title refers not to Robert E. Lee (who had many more senior commanders than Munford) but to Fitzhugh Lee, Munford’s immediate superior who often handed brigade and eventually division command to Munford. Barringer’s previous biographies of Confederate cavalry commanders Rufus Barringer and Thomas Rosser, places the author on familiar ground when discussing many of the events, places, and personalities that Munford encountered during the war. Rosser in particular played a significant role in Munford’s military career.

Barringer attempts to give readers a sense of Munford’s background by providing a rather thorough account of his antebellum life. Getting a sense of who Munford was is very important since his career contains the lack of promotion riddle. Why did Munford not reach the rank of general? It was no doubt a sore spot for the colonel, who after the war insisted on being called general and even wore a general’s uniform. Of the many pictures we have of Munford, most are of him after 1865, and wearing a custom-made general’s uniform.

Barringer explains that Munford placed blame for his colonel career ceiling on bias and being a graduate of VMI instead of West Point. Barringer, however also points out that Wade Hampton and several others received general’s commissions without either West Point or VMI training. Regardless, Berringer could have made his personal interpretation on the promotion issue more clear.

In reading Unhonored Service I came to my own conclusion as to why Munford never advanced beyond colonel. Ultimately, it may have been Munford’s blunt personality that put others off. Munford loathed Rosser, and while on good terms with Fitzhugh Lee during the war, they were never close friends, and the two had a falling out after the war. Although often well regarded by Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and J. E. B. Stuart, both men also thought Munford underperformed at critical times. With Stuart the rub came at Brandy Station. And while Barringer defends Munford’s actions in that battle, Stuart was not as understanding. Interestingly, Munford received the admiration of his men and the officers under him, but his superiors almost always seemed less impressed. Munford’s relationship with Jubal Early is telling. Early liked Munford, who by contrast was “not impressed with his [Early’s] generalship.” Compare that to Ulysses S. Grant, who stood by friends such as William Tecumseh Sherman even when they let him down. Grant’s practice had drawbacks, but so too did Munford’s, who was twice in his life challenged to a duel.

To provide the informational meat of the book, Berringer makes good use of available source material, demonstrating good research skills. Munford left behind a respectable archive of personal correspondence and he wrote numerous articles on the war, sharing his thoughts on the often petty arguments it sometimes produced, and his working relationships with others. Yet, the book’s campaign accounts are sometimes so detailed that Munford himself often disappears into the background. Unfortunately, the quality of the book’s maps are inconsistent.

Unhonored Service excels in Berringer’s coverage of Munford’s actions in 1865, and his post-war life. It helps that with these subjects Munford left an even more comprehensive paper trail. In addition, there are numerous photographs, particularly of Munford. For a man who never made general—much like John Singleton Mosby—there seem to be no lack of images.

Berringer’s Unhonored Service offers readers a book chocked full of information and makes a good case for Munford’s talents as a military commander, and in that regard it is a success. However, in Civil War history, a field of full of biographies, in order to truly stand out, a study needs to not just recount someone’s life but also give a full sense for who the individual was and how they changed over time.

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