The Forgotten “Stonewall of the West”: Major General John Stevens Bowen, by Phillip Thomas Tucker, Mercer University Press, Macon, Georgia, (912) 752-2880, 379 pages, $32.95.
Phillip Thomas Tucker has never been afraid of tackling subjects that are somewhat off the well-beaten Civil War path. His latest work, The Forgotten “Stonewall of the West,” is an example of his determined scholarship. His subject, Major General John S. Bowen, served in the Trans-Mississippi, at the Battles of Shiloh and Corinth, and throughout the 1863 Vicksburg Campaign. He was an aggressive, hard-hitting fighter who represented one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dark list of defeats for the Confederacy. He deserves a biography.
Exactly how this native Georgian, “an exiled Southerner and ex-army officer,” got to Missouri is in itself a story. For family reasons and apparently to be close to the scene of sectional confrontation, he settled south of St. Louis. After 1857, Bowen never saw Georgia again. By 1858, he had joined the pro-Southern Missouri State Militia. His organizational skills were readily apparent, and he rapidly ascended the ranks to colonel.
Tucker portrays Bowen as an officer cursed with bad luck. He was forced to serve under incompetent army commanders such as Earl Van Dorn and John Pemberton, who habitually made bumbling decisions. Under Pemberton, for example, Bowen’s division was placed on the wrong side of the Big Black River during the Vicksburg Campaign and was overrun.
He was not particularly popular with his fellow Missourians. At best, Tucker concedes, they had a love-hate relationship. He did not have important political and army connections to advance his military career. He served in the Vicksburg Campaign, the most understudied major campaign of the war, and thus failed to attract the attention of modern historians. Perhaps the worst luck of all was the manner of his death. He was not leading a charge in battle, but fighting a bout of dysentery. At one time, the location of his grave was unknown.
Yet, one wonders if Bowen did not create some of his own bad luck. He became embroiled in the infighting that so often divided the Confederate command in the West. Following the disastrous defeat at Corinth, he filed charges against Earl Van Dorn. The court, according to Tucker, was “a stacked deck of pro-Van Dorn supporters,” and the final verdict had virtually been decided in advance “for political reasons.”
The book is well-balanced, in large part because Tucker had the good fortune of discovering some Bowen family material at the Georgia Historical Society in Savannah and the Bowen Family Papers at the Missouri Historical Society. These sources shed light on the personal side of the general, especially his relationship with his wife. In short, these and several other valuable sources not only filled in the gaps but made an in-depth study possible.
One rather quirky aspect of an otherwise well-written book is Tucker’s constant comparison of Bowen to Ulysses S. Grant. The connection spawns from the fact that the two men lived near each other, south of St. Louis, for several years. What is an interesting side note, however, almost becomes a sub-theme of the book. Tucker points out that the West Pointers both struggled in civilian pursuits and worked in their fathers’ stores prior to the war. Both men married local girls. Both were “survivors” of Shiloh. The comparisons go on and on. The reader gets the idea that the stars had dictated parallel careers for the men and that they were fated to meet each other on the battlefield. It is simply too much of a stretch. The obvious difference between Grant and Bowen is that Grant made decisive strategic and tactical decisions that altered the outcome of the war, whereas Bowen, in his very limited role as a brigade and division commander, simply followed someone’s orders.
In the book’s introduction, Tucker asserts that Bowen, not Patrick Cleburne, deserves the sobriquet “Stonewall of the West.” It is a fascinating theme that I wish the author had expounded upon. There are several interesting comparisons. Both men performed rearguard actions that very possibly saved their armies–Bowen at Davis Bridge and Cleburne at Taylor’s Ridge. Both men performed brilliant defensive stands–Bowen at Grand Gulf and Cleburne at Missionary Ridge. Both became embroiled in controversial issues that had political ramifications and very possibly stunted their careers–Bowen, when he filed charges against Van Dorn, and Cleburne, when he proposed the arming of slaves.
Cleburne is in no danger of being toppled from his lofty position of hero of the West. Craig Symond’s recent biography of the Irishman (which also uses “Stonewall of the West” in the title) made a convincing case that Cleburne was indeed the greatest Rebel division commander in the West. But Tucker must be given his due. He has taken a relatively unknown officer and made a fair case that the two men should at least be compared.
Unfortunately, Tucker loves his subject too much and at times puts on blinders. He fails to mention that Bowen advocated, along with John Pemberton, that a stand be made at Vicksburg after the defeat at the Big Black River. By concurring in the decision, Bowen played a role in perhaps the greatest single disaster in the Confederacy. He apparently failed to grasp that it was better to lose the city than to lose the army and the city. To be sure, his lone voice of dissent would have made no difference. The fact that he agreed, however, subjects him to censure.
Tucker also has no sympathy for the complexities that Pemberton faced during the Vicksburg Campaign. It is true that Bowen’s warnings about Grand Gulf went unheeded, but the odds at the time were just as good that Bowen could have been wrong and Pemberton right. Generals do not have the luxury of hindsight. Tucker boldly proclaims that Bowen was “the best division commander produced by the Confederacy.” John Bell Hood, in his role as division commander in the Army of Northern Virginia, more than matched Bowen’s record, as did Frank Cheatham and Patrick Cleburne in the Army of Tennessee. A case could be made for others as well.
The story of John Bowen is, in a sense, a depressing one. Perhaps Phillip Tucker has presented readers with an appropriate symbol of the western Confederacy: a general unappreciated in his time, resilient in the face of defeat, passed over by political generals with less experience and knowledge of the art of war. It is interesting to speculate what might have happened with his career had he not faced an untimely death. While a corps command was probably not in the cards he might indeed have eclipsed Patrick Cleburne as the premier division commander in the West. We will never know.
Phillip Tucker has done a fine job on what undoubtedly will become the definitive biography of John Bowen. Had the academic readers of his manuscript steered him toward a more critical and discerning view of his subject, a good book could have been a great book.
Larry J. Daniel