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Posted on May 15, 2012 in Books and Movies

True Crime in the Civil War – Book Review

By Neal West

True Crime in the Civil War: Cases of Murder, Treason, Counterfeiting, Massacre, Plunder & Abuse. Tobin T. Buhk. Stackpole Books, 2012. 264 pages. Endnotes, bibliography, index. Paperback: $21.95.

Tobin Buhk is the author of True Crime: Michigan as well as the co-author of a pair of non-fiction books on forensics: Skeletons in the Closet: Tales from the County Morgue and Cause of Death: Forensic Files of a Medical Examiner. In his latest work, Buhk compiles a trove of true-life tales on my favorite topic, the Civil War, in True Crime in the Civil War: Cases of Murder, Treason, Counterfeiting, Massacre, Plunder & Abuse.

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As the book’s subtitle indicates, the author describes in lurid detail just about every type of unsavory emotion that war can unleash in human beings. While he does cover crimes well known to readers immersed in the Civil War era—Benjamin Butler’s exploits in New Orleans, "Bloody Bill" Anderson’s depredations, the Lincoln conspiracy, the Fort Pillow "massacre," and the trial of Henry Wirz, for example—he provides more details and evidence than this reviewer has come across in his (admittedly limited) readings on the topic.

Buhk could have stayed on the well-trodden path, but to his credit chose not to. Besides the expected guerrilla massacres and POW camp atrocities, he also uncovers tales of Union counterfeiters, duels between (and outright murders of) general officers, draft riots (and not the one in New York), and rebel WMD plots.

In relating the stories of these crimes, he is careful to remind the reader that morals, as well as the legal system, were very much different in the 1860s. For example, the authorities never charged the murderer of General Earl Van Dorn with a crime, as the shooter claimed to be upholding the honor of his much younger wife, rumored to be having an affair with the infamously indiscrete Confederate officer.

True Crime also attempts to give Union and Confederate atrocities equal time; roughly half of 13 chapters concern Union-on-Confederate crimes or vice versa, while the remaining describe internal, i.e. Confederate/Confederate or Union/Union crime. We should also note that Buhk does not shy away from telling of crimes that do not fit the conventional narrative of the war, such as the murder of the Beckham family—including the children—by a group of newly liberated slaves.

When I first saw the title, I was expecting perhaps a 19th century version of Forensic Files, or Dr. G: Medical Examiner. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Buhk wrote an engaging, well-documented collection of tales culled from contemporary newspapers, official reports, trial transcripts, and other primary sources—with all the attendant lurid and gory details intact.

Yet the gruesome particulars, such as those relating to the 1863 sack of Lawrence, Kansas, are not related simply for shock value but are pulled from newspaper reporters’ accounts, diaries, and post-war books. Buhk readily acknowledges that much of this material compiled from these contemporary sources is suspect. He warns that these chroniclers "at times … embellish … or even downright lie." When not lying, "they’re mistaken … inaccurate…" and/or "sling accusations as if they’re firing at the enemy." Nevertheless, Buhk valiantly tries to collect as many "voices" as possible and "discern some middle ground between them." It is his efforts at mediating the sources, the "voices," that elevates True Crime of the Civil War above a simplistic version of Cops.

True Crime should appeal to a wide-ranging audience. Both Civil War aficionados and fans of crime dramas will find much to enjoy. However, be warned that the events described in True Crime in the Civil War may disturb those who romanticize the conflict. The events between 1861 and 1865 (and the years of Reconstruction that followed) were not simply a war between geographical sections but a civil war, the most vicious and ruthless types of war humans can wage.

Neal West is a retired USAF E7, a currently serving USAF civil servant, and a living history volunteer at Manassas National Battlefield Park. He will receive a MA in History, Civil War concentration, from American Military University in August 2012.

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