Civil War Book Review: Harvest of Barren Regrets: The Army Career of Frederick William Benteen, 1834-1898

Harvest of Barren Regrets: The Army Career of Frederick William Benteen, 1834-1898
by Charles K. Mills, Introduction by James Donovan

Product Details

  • Paperback: 440 pages
  • Publisher: Bison Books (October 1, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0803236840
  • ISBN-13: 978-0803236844

Harvest of Barren Regrets: The Army Career of Frederick William Benteen, 1834-1898In 1861, as America stumbled into a civil war, a 27 year-old sign painter broke with his family and chose to fight for the United States.  He was able to drill the would-be solders and became an officer.  In 1865, this sign painter is a Lt. Colonel, next in line to become a Brevet Brigade General United States Volunteers.

After the war, our sign painter Cavalry Officer is able to secure a Regular Army Commission as a Captain.  Twenty-three years later, holding the rank of Major, he receives a medical retirement.  The twenty-seven years from 1861 to 1888 encompassed the American Civil War and a number of campaigns against Native Americans.  Frederick William Benteen’s experiences are no different from many other officers during this period.  In many ways, Benteen is a prototype for the men that officered the American Army during this time.  We can retell Benteen’s story many times and with minor variations, it is a different person.  The thing that set him apart from his peers is Little Big Horn.  Captain Frederick William Benteen rallied the remnants of Major Reno’s command and organized the defensive position.  In doing so, Benteen became the “Savior of the 7th Calvary”.  This inserted him into an ongoing controversy and fascination with this battle that shows no signs of abating.

This is a reprint of the 1985 publication.  James Donovan wrote an excellent introduction that is worth reading covering the history of both the author and this book.  Frederick William Benteen is a complex person that people found equally easy to like and dislike.  In many ways, Benteen is his worst enemy.  He excels at upsetting the wrong person, often at the worst time to do so.  While the author likes and admires him, this is NOT a love letter.  The author takes a hard look at his subject, detailing the good and the bad.  The result is a very readable biography that captures both the American Civil War and the wars in the West.

That is the real value in reading this book.  You gain an understanding of army life that I have not seen elsewhere.  As we following Benteen from isolated fort to isolated fort, we see how the government’s policy is failing.  Children die and their graves left behind.  Battles are sharp, quick and often deadly.  Senior officers are often absent leaving regiments under staffed.  The Civil War’s rank and brevets create problems as men wait for promotion.  The Battle of Little Big Horn causes a series of promotions to fill openings created by death.  This is a harsh life and a lonely one.  Benteen and his wife enjoy being married and their letters reflect the loss of time together.

Little Big Horn occupies the right amount of space.  The author understands how important this is and understands that it is not the only event.  The aftermath is almost more interesting than the battle.  The author walks us through inquires and boards while bringing up stories that sound “right”.  This is not a book of guesswork; everything is documented and fully footnoted.

The author is very easy to read.  He can convey information with few problems.  His words portraits of the people and views of the places are excellent.  His understanding of the subject comes through in many ways.  We often find a nugget of historical information hidden away.  The author tosses them out, not to brag but to help us understand the situation.  This highly recommended book should appeal the Custer people, Civil War people and those wishing to read about the American West.


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