A Hero to His Fighting Men: Nelson A. Miles, 1839-1925. – Review

A Hero to His Fighting Men: Nelson A. Miles, 1839-1925. – Review – book review

Robert Wooster

A Hero to His Fighting Men: Nelson A. Miles, 1839-1925. By Peter R. DeMontravel (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1998. Pp. x, 463, $45.00.)

Nelson A. Miles ranked among the most important military figures of late-nineteenth-century America. One of the best of the North’s “boy generals” of the Civil War, Miles fought in virtually every major battle on the eastern front. He went on to further fame in the wars against the Indians, playing an important role in the defeat of the Comanches, Cheyennes, Lakotas, Nez Perces, and Apaches. Miles also played a controversial role in 1894 Pullman Strike. And as the last commanding general of the army, he led the United States occupation of Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War.

Author of three published biographies, plain-spoken before the press, and correspondent with many of the major military and political leaders of the age, Miles was a colorful and controversial figure whose long life (1839-1925) spanned the development of the United States into a world power. Oddly, with the exception of non-scholarly accounts by Virginia Johnson and Newton Tolman during the 1960s, academic biographers ignored Miles until relatively recently. In 1985, however, Brian C. Phanka edited Nelson A. Miles: A Documentary Biography of His Military Career. Jerome Green’s Yellowstone Command: Colonel Nelson A. Miles and the Great Sioux War, 1876-1877, appeared in 1991, followed by my own Nelson A. Miles and the Twilight of the Frontier Army two years later.

Peter R. DeMontravel’s A Hero to His Fighting Men: Nelson A. Miles, 1839-1925 is the most detailed available account of this controversial figure. It is also the most favorable. Whereas Miles has traditionally been depicted as an egotistical if talented military figure dominated by his overweening ambitions and belief that he was the victim of repeated conspiracies, DeMontravel argues that such characteristics have been overblown. Miles had good reason to fear the machinations of others, insists DeMontravel, who suggests that previous biographers have overemphasized his subject’s faults.

Civil War historians will find relatively little new in the two chapters devoted to Miles’s activities during the war between the states, although DeMontravel does provide a solid record of these years. On a more general level, the narrative biographical detail is superior to the analysis, which is somewhat loosely based around the theme of Miles as “a hero to his fighting men.” Unfortunately, this intriguing thesis is not fully developed, and the author’s habit of almost invariably siding with Miles in his many disagreements with superiors seems somewhat strained in the face of much evidence to the contrary.

Despite these misgivings, DeMontravel’s biography is superior to other efforts in two important ways. A Hero to his Fighting Men offers an especially good description of Miles’s Puerto Rico campaign, a model of efficiency often overlooked amidst the army’s blunders in Cuba. Further, DeMontravel has done impressive work in mining late-nineteenth-century newspapers, revealing important new contemporary perspectives about his elusive subject. Those interested in General Miles’s long career will certainly need to consult this new biography.

COPYRIGHT 1999 Kent State University Press

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