A Review of Matt: Warriors & Wagon Trains During the Civil War (Amazon, 2019) by James Michael Pasley.
Ordinarily, I don’t endorse novels. As a general rule, I don’t even read them. But after my wife suggested I read Matt: Warriors & Wagon Trains During the Civil War, I couldn’t put it down, so I decided to make an exception to my long-held policy and recommend this one to my compatriots.
The book describes the War for Southern Independence in Missouri in 1864 and is solidly based in history. It is based on the diary of Martha “Matt” Estelle Logan, who lived in Littleby, Missouri, until she was forced to flee west in a covered wagon train because Union troops, Jayhawkers, and corrupt Federal officials who had a dubiously legal license to steal and imprison people without cause. Her sin was to fall in love with Josiah, a Southern sympathizer and guerrilla warrior who rode with Bill Quantrill, Bloody Bill Anderson, Little Archie Clement, the James brothers, and others. When the local provost marshal found out about Matt’s relationship with Josiah Riffel, she had two choices: flee or see her family farm seized and confiscated by Yankees. Under such circumstances, her parents would be imprisoned and probably die in one of Mr. Lincoln’s dungeons. Predictably, she chose to flee. She traveled west along the Oregon Trail to Sacramento, and suffered many trials and hardships along the way. Josiah, meanwhile, did everything he could to curb the bluecoat tide, despite their overwhelming numbers and resources, and free the people of his home state from the tyrannical rule of a Union Army, which is totally out of control. As the book progresses, one gets the feeling that you are there, riding with Bloody Bill and the James boys through a devastated landscape as they struggle for liberty and survival, waging a desperate war for freedom and independence as the Yankee hordes pursue you and close in on your steadily diminishing Rebel band, fighting for your life while Western Civilization crumbles.
During the book, Professor Pasley nails the characters of the Southern leaders, especially Bill Anderson and Archie Clement. Every major event he describes is historically accurate. Only the conversations and the character Josiah are fictionalized. (We don’t know exactly what they said.) In a sense, Josiah is also real. He is a composite of the Southerners who fought those dreadful battles.
I do not like the epaulet “Civil War.” I personally prefer “the War of Southern Self-Determination” because that’s what it was; however, it came closer to being a Civil War in Missouri than anywhere else. Civil wars are often more ruthless than other kinds of conflicts. Professor Pasley does not soft-peddle this fact. Ruthless actions by both Unionists and guerrillas are faithfully chronicled, just as they occurred.
The author is not only a brilliant writer; he is a retired history professor. He is a native Missourian who taught at the college/university level for 27 years, specializing in the Civil War and the American West. The reader gets the feeling that he is learning from a true authority—because that is precisely what is happening.
Professor Pasley is a very talented writer, and his book flows exceptionally well. With many authors, you’ll find what I call “peaks and valleys.” You are fascinated and sometimes enthralled during the peaks, but are forced to wade through valleys, enduring passages of the book which are laborious, and you have to make an intellectual forced march to get through them. The peaks are fun; but the valleys? Not so much. You will not face his problem in Warriors & Wagon Trains. There are no valleys. Pasley also crams a lot into a relatively small volume. It is full of action and adventure, and there is no “filler” (i.e., he does not include extraneous material just to make the book longer).
One warning about this book: you won’t find it easy to put it down. Don’t start it on Sunday night if you have to be at work “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” early Monday morning. You are likely to miss your bedtime and feel lethargic all the next day.