Book Review: Adelbert Ames, the Civil War, and the Creation of Modern America

Adelbert Ames, the Civil War, and the Creation of Modern America. By Michael J. Megelsh. Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 2024. Softcover, 320 pp., $39.95.

Reviewed by Brian Swartz

Despite his bleeding heroism at First Manassas, ability to whip almost a thousand independent-minded Mainers into regimental shape, and divisional leadership at Gettysburg, Adelbert Ames remains a Civil War shadow even in his native state. He is best known — some historians might say only known — for teaching a certain lieutenant colonel how to lead soldiers.

Fortunately for Civil War historiography, Michael J. Megelsh capably brings Ames to life with his latest book, Adelbert Ames, the Civil War, and the Creation of Modern America. Rather than present only Ames the warrior, Megelsh introduces this proud, opinionated, brave, and capable individual as soldier, politician, and family man in “the first modern biography … depicting his life in its entirety” (2).

The twelve-chapter book spans Ames’ life from his Maine birth to his Massachusetts death. The first chapter takes Ames from Rockland on Penobscot Bay to West Point and then on the road to Manassas. Megelsh explains how his subject developed a “disdain for slavery” (17), a viewpoint that would influence his post-war political career.

The next five chapters follow Ames through the war, from First Manassas to occupation duty in South Carolina. Ambitious for higher rank, he obtained a volunteer colonelcy, then roundly and loudly criticized the civilians coalescing as the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment. Disdain flowed bidirectionally, but Ames and his men grudgingly developed a mutual respect, the regiment becoming “one of the finest in the army, displaying the discipline instilled in them by Ames” (78).

Placing Ames among the “boy generals” rising to prominence in 1863, Megelsh wraps up the war and, in Chapter 7, takes the reader to Europe with Ames in 1866 and 1867. An arrogant man unafraid to criticize certain superiors (but never within their hearing or reading) during the war, Ames met the high and mighty (including Emperor Napoleon III) and experienced the European culture held in high wonderment by Americans just exploring the Old World.

His Anglo-Saxon Protestantism sparked some criticism of Roman Catholic religious practices and relics. Here and elsewhere, Megelsh reveals an Ames who often thought he could do a better job than others; this trait particularly emerges in Chapter 12, when Ames rejoins the army to fight during the Spanish-American War.

Returning to America in 1867, Ames took the 24th U.S. Infantry Regiment to Mississippi that August for occupation duty. Seizing political control, die-hard ex-Confederates were attempting to legislatively re-enslave Blacks. As his men supported the Freedmen’s Bureau, Ames “would witness first-hand just how laborious and dangerous a task it was” (151) to give Blacks their civil rights.

In chapters 8 to 11, Megelsh expertly details Reconstruction’s initial successes and ultimate failure in Mississippi while covering the roles played there by Ames. Rare among his wartime contemporaries, he transitioned from Yankee general to Southern politician, serving as senator and governor.

Appointed the state’s provisional governor, Ames later left the army and won election as a U.S. senator from Mississippi. He married Blanche Butler (the Beast’s daughter) and, with strong Black voter support, became Mississippi’s Republican governor even as white Democratic resistance stiffened against him.

Experiencing the increasingly violent Southern efforts to crush Black civil rights, Ames both participated in and witnessed the events transforming the United States during that first decade after the Civil War. Amidst the deteriorating political situation in Mississippi (his account reads like Megelsh is bugling an alarm louder and louder), Ames sees the Klan and other supremacist groups terrify and suppress the state’s Black residents as racist Whites retake the legislature. Ames ultimately faces a difficult decision as legislators impeach him.

With Adelbert Ames, the Civil War, and the Creation of Modern America, Megelsh has added critical substance to Civil War biography and Reconstruction history. The story flows well, and maps and photographs scattered throughout the book buttress its readability.

1 Response to Book Review: Adelbert Ames, the Civil War, and the Creation of Modern America

  1. I don’t know how true this is, but supposedly getting revenge on Ames was one of the motives(besides the bank) for the Northfield, Minn. raid by the James-Younger gang, Ames being a resident of the town at the time.

    Sounds like a great book!

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