15 December, 2002Issue 2.1HistoryNorth America

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Another Side of the Confederacy

Anna Terry

Cynthia DeHaven Pitcock and Bill J. Gurley, eds.
I Acted From Principle: The Civil War Diary of Dr.
William M. McPheeters, Confederate Surgeon in the Trans-Mississippi.
University of Arkansas Press, 2002
304 pages

John N. Edwards. Conger Beasley Jr., ed.
Shelby’s Expedition to Mexico: An Unwritten Leaf of the War
University of Arkansas Press, 2002
272 pages

A native North Carolina, Dr. William McPheeters had built a successful medical career in St. Louis, distinguishing himself in public health research and organizing the first professional associations in Missouri. When the American Civil War broke out in April 1861, Union authorities in the border states began to threaten and harass Confederate sympathizers. By swearing allegiance to the Union, McPheeters could have saved his career and property. Like many other Southern professionals, he deplored slavery. But with relatives and friends from his home state already fighting for the South, he knew a genuine transfer of loyalties would never be possible. The only choice his conscience left open to him was to reject the oath, a decision that ultimately forced him to flee his home and join the Confederate forces west of the Mississippi, where he served as an army surgeon under General Sterling Price.

McPheeters’ diary is the first known account of the Civil War in the West by a Confederate medical officer. It tells the story of McPheeters’ departure from St. Louis, his wartime experiences in Arkansas, and his daily duties treating battle wounds, malnutrition, and infectious diseases. It also relates the hardships of his wife and two children, who endured both imprisonment and banishment during his absence. This is a look at the personal journey of a principled Southerner, one of many who suffered the disastrous consequences of a difficult moral choice, but who ultimately returned home to rebuild their lives and communities.

Rather than acknowledge the Confederacy’s defeat in the Civil War, many diehard rebels fled the South forever, preferring exile to Yankee rule. Some made their way to Mexico, where they joined forces with warring monarchist and Juarista factions. First published in 1872, Shelby’s Expedition to Mexico is the tale of Confederate general Joseph O. Shelby and his Fourth Missouri Cavalry Brigade. Better known as the ‘Iron Brigade’, the unit saw extensive action in the Trans-Mississippi theater, notably in the battles of Camden and Jenkins’ Ferry in Arkansas. Refusing to accept Lee’s surrender, Shelby and his men fought their way across fifteen hundred miles of hostile territory, eventually reaching Mexico City. During their picaresque journey, they encountered an astonishing variety of colorful and dangerous characters—outlaws, Native Americans, and Mexican partisans.

Conger Beasley’s introduction includes a biographical sketch of the elusive author, the newspaperman John Edwards. Echoing the epic romances of Sir Walter Scott and Victor Hugo, Edwards spins a tale of high adventure and desperately courageous men sustained only by their heroism and chivalry and ultimately left with nothing but their honor. A fine example of ‘Lost Cause literature’, this account provides another contemporary perspective on the Civil War in the West.

Anna Terry, a tenth-generation Arkansan, is reading medieval history at Trinity College, Oxford. She did undergraduate degrees in German, European Studies, and Biochemistry at the University of Arkansas and plans to become a physician.