Gordon L. Olson. The Notorious Isaac Earl and His Scouts: Union Soldiers, Prisoners, Spies. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2014. xi + 300 pp. $22.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8028-6801-5.
Reviewed by Paul Springer (Air University, Air Command and Staff College)
Published on H-War (July, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Gordon L. Olson served as the city historian in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for decades, and in that capacity, he produced several well-received works of local history. With his most recent work, Olson is tackling a subject beyond his normal stomping grounds, but he has done an enormous amount of meticulous research in his effort to examine Isaac Earl, a Union soldier who earned a notorious reputation in Louisiana during the Civil War. Earl and his small, independent command operated as a rudimentary form of special forces, acting alternately as cavalry regulars, armed partisans, spies, and scouts; they had an outsized influence over the course of events in the region during the Union occupation of the southern portion of the state. Olson does an admirable job investigating all of the myriad forms of warfare practiced by these daring pioneers and placing it into the context of the vicious backcountry war raging through the area.
Earl and the three dozen men under his command offer a fascinating subject for study; his story is proof that there are still limitless stories to tell from a subject, the American Civil War, that some scholars considered exhausted decades ago. His special scouts unit was formed primarily to conduct economic warfare against Confederate partisans operating in the region. In particular, Earl’s men were empowered to seize contraband; to eliminate, or at least seriously curtail, smuggling across the Mississippi River; and to hunt the bushwhackers guilty of attacks against both Union forces and Southern collaborators who sought to cooperate with the occupiers. In this regard, Earl’s forces were remarkably successful, capturing more than one million dollars in contraband, including nearly one thousand bales of cotton, as well as dozens of Confederate prisoners. They also proved extremely effective at developing useful intelligence regarding Confederate movements in the area and ferreting out spies within the Union lines. Earl is portrayed as a larger-than-life Civil War hero, who terrorized his enemies; repeatedly escaped from captivity; and in the end was gunned down by a cowardly enemy who refused to follow the basic concepts of chivalry, or even common decency. There is a certain degree of sensationalism in the account, but Olson does an admirable job of parsing the fact from fiction to portray Olson in a clear and convincing fashion.
Olson has a very easy, smooth writing style, the product of decades of effort within the profession. It is bolstered by a clear organization and a wealth of sources. This work is clearly the product of decades of effort, a labor of love performed when official duties would allow. The result has very believable conclusions, based largely on excellent primary sources. It is clear that Olson is enamored with the subject of his study. Unfortunately, however, a certain tinge of hero-worship intrudes upon the narrative from time to time, which leads to a certain overstatement of the importance of Earl’s effect on the outcome of the war. In particular, Olson tends to argue that Earl acted entirely out of professionalism and a sense of duty, as did all of the men under his command. The alternate explanation is that some, perhaps most, of Earl’s scouts acted largely out of a desire for plunder, as their official sanction essentially allowed them to operate as free agents, confiscating any private property that they might deem contraband of war. Olson’s armchair generalship can be a bit cloying at times, and a broader examination of the secondary literature might have clarified some of his discussions regarding the overall influence of Earl’s unit on the war in Louisiana. In the end, though, Olson resists the urge to push his views too forcefully on the reader and seems content to present the case as he sees it, leaving room for some dissent.
Olson’s narrative touches on a number of important subjects. Perhaps most notably, it reminds the reader that guerrilla warfare was the norm in many areas behind the formal lines of battle, not just in Missouri where it has been most thoroughly covered. This study demonstrates the importance of the economic aspects of the conflict, a concept that often disappears into the operational histories of the war, but that might have been just as important as battlefield activities in determining the eventual outcome of the conflict. In particular, the effort to control and patrol the entire length of the Mississippi River, a goal that Earl’s scouts pursued relentlessly, is a fundamental part of the story. In addition, the key roles that can be played by small, independent units, particularly those armed with the latest forms of technology, is a recurring theme that has only become more important in modern warfare. The nature of the “shadow war” fought by Earl and his antagonists, when contrasted with the large-scale battles more commonly covered in Civil War works, reminds the reader of the wide variety of violence practiced during the conflict. Further, the roles played by spies, informants, sympathizers, and collaborators, as well as the ability of African American slaves to affect the outcome of the war, are major elements of this narrative.
Overall, this is an excellent biography of a man who had largely fallen into obscurity. At times, Olson includes a bit of redundancy in his narrative, as if determined to show every fact he encountered in years of research, but in a study of this type, a certain degree of reemphasis can be forgiven. This study is an excellent work and would be a worthy addition to the shelf of any individual interested in the Civil War, particularly in Louisiana; the antecedents of special forces; or the irregular aspects of the Civil War. Olson is to be commended for his work in putting Earl back into the discussion of Civil War heroes.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Paul Springer. Review of Olson, Gordon L., The Notorious Isaac Earl and His Scouts: Union Soldiers, Prisoners, Spies.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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