Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Notorious Isaac Earl and His Scouts: Union Soldiers, Prisoners, Spies

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Notorious Isaac Earl and His Scouts: Union Soldiers, Prisoners, Spies

Article excerpt

The Notorious Isaac Earl and His Scouts: Union Soldiers, Prisoners, Spies. By Gordon L. Olson. (Grand Rapids, Mich., and Cambridge, Eng.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014. Pp. [xii], 300. Paper, $22.00, ISBN 978-0-8028-6801-5.)

Gordon L. Olson's examination of Lieutenant Isaac Newton Earl's Special Scouts is another example of deepening interest in aspects of the Civil War previously ignored, devalued, poorly understood, or simply misunderstood. However, the main problem with books dealing with Civil War guerrillas, scouts, and spies is usually the author's singular focus on daring deeds and violent encounters that ignores context or meaning. The research, moreover, is often thin and the analysis even thinner. Thus, readers are led deep into the historical weeds without a map, leaving them disoriented, lost, and unaware of the significance of these events and people within the larger conflict.

Olson's portrayal of the origins, activities, and overall contributions of Earl's Special Scouts, however, is a welcome exception to this rule. His account of the creation and operations of this motley crew of Union enlisted men who volunteered for this duty is extremely thorough and based on solid primary research. And there is much to tell. Isaac Earl served in the Fourth Wisconsin Cavalry until he and others in his regiment volunteered to be scouts along the Mississippi River. General E. R. S. Canby created the Special Scouts in June 1864 and chose Earl to command the group, made up of Union soldiers, local Unionists, and at least one deserter from the Confederate army, most of whom are discussed in some detail in the book's appendix. Earl's squad operated behind enemy lines in Louisiana and Mississippi gathering intelligence on enemy activity, protecting Union communication lines, chasing down guerrillas, disrupting Confederate commerce and smuggling efforts, and preventing illegal cotton trading along the Mississippi River. …

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