Monday, February 14, 2011

Book Review - Distant Bugles, Distant Drums

In Distant Bugles, Distant Drums, author Flint Whitlock conducts an in-depth analysis of the New Mexico campaign of 1862. Previous works have related primarily the Confederate viewpoint of the campaign, due in large part to the availability of primary source material from the campaign. Mr. Whitlock presents a more Union-centric approach, with a careful blend of primary accounts of both sides. The principal narrators of this story are the leaders and members of the 1st Colorado Volunteers. Through exhaustive research in the Colorado state archives, he has pieced together a narrative as enjoyable and accurate as it is compelling.

Too often in historical writing, accuracy and an enjoyable writing style are mutually exclusive. This is definitely not the case for this book. Whitlock provides a very lively and entertaining account of the campaign, from its roots to its culmination. He weaves firsthand accounts of the campaign into very accurate and coherent narration of the campaign’s skirmishes and battles. Unlike many books of this sort, there are actually enough maps to enable the reader to easily follow the action. Surprisingly, the author created them himself, and they greatly assist the reader to follow the individual engagements and the campaign as a whole.

This is far from a simple battle book, however. Whitlock develops his characters as well as many fiction writers, presenting them with both their strengths and foibles. The overwhelming majority of them are multi-faceted, with the possible exception of Henry H. Sibley. Although told from a primarily Union viewpoint, the author carefully blends in the situation and decisions of both sides as the campaign develops.

At the end of the campaign, Whitlock’s summary of the major players’ careers through the remainder of the war and modern descriptions of the locations of the book was both entertaining and enlightening. Given the depth of information about the 1st Colorado, a roster for the regiment would not have been out of place, but this was a campaign study and not a regimental history.

If I had one issue with this book, it would be that at times it seems a bit too 1st Colorado-centric. The efforts of the New Mexico volunteers are dismissed outright, and I would have liked to see more of the point of view of the Regular Army units and leaders. This may simply be due to the information available to the author, however, as official reports from the Official Records often don’t offer such insight. It is a minor issue that does not detract from the book, however. This is an excellent read, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in examining this generally poorly understood theater of the war.

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