Review: The Last Confederate General: John C. Vaughn and the East Tennessee Cavalry

Gordon, Larry. The Last Confederate General: John C. Vaughn and the East Tennessee Cavalry. Zenith Press (March 15, 2009). 272 pages, illustrations, maps, index. ISBN: 978-0760335178 $27.00 (Hardcover).

TheLastConfederateGeneralJohnCVaughnAndHidEastTennesseeCavalryLarryGordonZenithPressWho was the last Confederate general to surrender in the Eastern Theater?  Even hardcore students of the Civil War would be hard pressed to find the answer that the title of Larry Gordon’s new book provides.  John C. Vaughn saw action in a wide variety of places, from his home in East Tennessee to First Bull Run to Vicksburg and many places in between.  He was also a friend of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and was involved in escorting the president as he tried to flee the country in the closing days of the Civil War.  Gordon’s new biography of General John C. Vaughn sheds light on this all but forgotten man who had a fascinating career.

John C. Vaughn, born in 1824 and a native of East Tennessee, had seen service as a captain during the Mexican War.  He was a leading member of East Tennessee society when the war broke out and he raised the first Tennessee regiment for Confederate service.  In the ensuing four years, Vaughn led various troops from East Tennessee in battles as diverse as First Manassas, Vicksburg, Piedmont, Monocacy, and some of the various small clashes in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864.  Much of Vaughn’s time, however, was spent in his native East Tennessee, fighting a sometimes guerrilla war in an uphill battle against the many Unionists in the area.  It was a battle he eventually, and inevitably, lost.  In addition, Vaughn’s family was arrested and sent north by order of William Tecumseh Sherman, the only family of a Confederate general incarcerated during the war.  Although Vaughn eventually secured their release, Gordon argues his ability to operate effectively as a combat commander was adversely affected by this event.  As the war drew to a close Vaughn’s East Tennessee Confederates escorted Jefferson Davis as he attempted to flee the country after the fall of Richmond.  Gordon rightly points out the irony of men from an area known as a Unionist stronghold being some of the very last Confederates to give up the fight.  He concludes they did so because to go home meant possible harassment or even death for the men and their families from vengeful Unionists who now controlled the area.  Much of Vaughn’s post-war life was spent with his new wife (the first had died shortly after the war) in Thomasville, Georgia, though he did become active in Tennessee politics for a time as well.

I thought Larry Gordon did a solid job with his biography of John C. Vaughn.  The book was easy to read and stayed interesting throughout.  The many sub-chapters allow a reader to want to move forward, making this a tough book to put down.  More maps, especially of the East Tennessee region he spent much of the war in, would have helped tremendously to increase the value of the book.  With that said, the maps that were included were very well done.

In some descriptions of battles the lack of extant information on Vaughn led to a basic retelling of the fight with little or no detail of what Vaughn and his men were doing.  While this was no doubt unavoidable, it sometimes caused the story to suffer a bit.  A similar situation occurred at times in Major General Robert E. Rodes of the Army of Northern Virginia by Darrell Collins.  To his credit, though the author freely admitted that the lack of sources close to Vaughn made the task more difficult, he didn’t use this as an excuse.  Instead he mined other sources, a major one being the always important Official Records.  Gordon was definitely creative in his quest to obtain as much data about Vaughn as possible, as a look at his primary sources will readily show.

Gordon’s attempt to change the almost universally negative perception of Vaughn’s reputation as a combat commander falls somewhat short.  Vaughn’s culpability for the Battle of Piedmont is admittedly greater than it should be, but his many defeats cannot be explained away by the imprisonment of his family.  Arguably Vaughn’s greatest disaster occurred at the Big Black River Bridge in the Vicksburg Campaign prior to his family’s incarceration.

The Last Confederate General: John C. Vaughn and the East Tennessee Cavalry by Larry Gordon is a well done biography which adds to readers’ understanding of the divided loyalties in the much contested eastern mountains of Tennessee.  Vaughn’s trail meanders all across the Civil War landscape over the course of the four years from 1861-1865 and his is a fascinating story.  Those interested in Civil War biographies, guerrilla warfare in general and East Tennessee in particular, and strange but true personal stories of the Civil War era will all enjoy this new book on a completely overlooked personality.

I would like to thank John Wurm at Zenith Press.

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One response to “Review: The Last Confederate General: John C. Vaughn and the East Tennessee Cavalry

  1. Leah J. Myers Avatar
    Leah J. Myers

    I met Mr. Gordon last night when he spoke at the Allegany County Civil War Roundtable meeting in LaVale MD. His book is very much worth reading and well written. I was very impressed with his presentation of the book and the book itself.

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