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Confederate Commander in the Shenandoah
by Spencer C. Tucker
2003, Univ. Press of Kentucky

Reviewed by Dave Walter

Dr. Tucker, a military history professor at Virginia Military Institute, offers the first full examination of the life of Brig. General John Imboden, one of the "lesser lights" in General Lee's cavalry command. "Lesser light" or not, Gen. Imboden had a fascinating career, both in and out of the Confederate Army.

Gen. Imboden never received his due for several reasons. His post-war writings, which made it into "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War," have been roundly denounced for fabrications that embellished his role in the campaigns and diminished others'. Modern historians Robert Krick and James Robertson, both of whom know Shenandoah Valley campaigns like they participated, find his writings "worthless" and "must be ignored." His contemporary, Jed Hotchkiss, cartographer for Jackson and Lee, said, "I do not like to say that my friend is unreliable; and yet the truth of the matter is that his statements will not bear the tests of criticism." In addition, Imboden was never liked by Robert E. Lee, which certainly hurt his reputation.

Imboden was born in 1823 in Augusta County, Va., near Staunton. His family were relatively prosperous farmers and the six-foot plus John was able to attend Washington College in Lexington. There he met life-long friends, such as John Letcher, who would serve as Virginia's governor at the beginning of the Civil War, and Francis Smith, the Superintendent of VMI. After graduation, Imboden taught for a while and then read law in Staunton. By the mid-1850's, he was serving in the Virginia House of Delegates where he had a considerable reputation for his command of English and his oratorical skills. As the War approached, he joined the Virginia Militia and, in 1859, was elected captain of the Staunton Artillery, which he took the lead in organizing.

As Virginia was preparing to secede, Imboden was active in a plot to seize the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry with Capt. Turner Ashby and others. Shortly thereafter, Imboden was serving in Harpers Ferry with Jeb Stuart under Stonewall Jackson. Initially, he distinguished himself at First Bull Run. By 1862, he was organizing a cavalry unit, the 1st Partisan Rangers, which fought with Jackson in the famous Valley campaign. Imboden was at the battles of Cross Keys and Port Republic, then assisted in capturing Harpers Ferry again during Lee's Maryland campaign.

He was promoted to Brig. General in January 1863, and in his semi-independent command showed promise. He led 3,300 cavalry into western Virginia in conjunction with another 2,200 under Gen. Grumble Jones and their raid cut the B&O Railroad, captured livestock and ravaged the Kanawha Valley petroleum fields destroying 150,000 barrels of oil, with little loss to his command. But Imboden was no disciplinarian: his partisan rangers fought well but didn't exhibit the martial bearing that higher-ups expected. Straggling and absent-without-leave was rampant as most of his men were serving close to their homes.

As the Pennsylvania invasion developed, Lee had to rely on Imboden's brigade to screen the Army of Northern Virginia as it moved north. Imboden was to screen the left (Western) flank to confuse and hold off any Federal interference from the Cumberland, MD and Pittsburgh, PA areas. Here, he disappointed Lee and, it might be said, greatly contributed to the adverse outcome of the rebel cause at Gettysburg.

Lee ordered Imboden to bring his "Northwestern Brigade" to Chambersburg, PA to relieve Maj. Gen. George Pickett's division from guarding the reserve wagon train and tail of the Army. Instead, Imboden lingered near McConnellsburg, foolishly skirmishing with weak Federal cavalry patrols. Not until July 1 would the brigade near Chambersburg. This, according to Tucker, "forced Lee to leave behind Pickett's strong infantry division of three brigades to do the work of cavalry in guarding his rear area. Longstreet recalled that the loss of this division to him early in the battle of Gettysburg had provoked Lee's wrath as did few events of the war. It made such an impression on Longstreet that he in fact mentioned it twice in his memoirs as one of the few examples of Lee's having lost his temper." It is interesting to speculate on the outcome on July 2nd had Pickett's division arrived a day earlier and had charged the Federal center in conjunction with Wright, whose troops briefly broke through the position at the wall.

Subsequently, Imboden did a stellar job escorting the withdrawal to the Potomac and keeping the Federals from capturing the wagon train and wounded at Williamsport. In October 1863, Lee commended him for a successful raid into West Virginia, and he played a key role in defeating Gen. Sigel's march up the Valley, where Gen. Breckenridge won at New Market. Imboden fought on at Piedmont and Lynchburg, but was too ill from typhoid to accompany Gen. Jubal Early's thrust at Washington. Against Sheridan, he fought unsuccessfully, fell ill again, and ended his Confederate service in charge of Confederate prisons in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. As such, he took what measures he could to alleviate suffering in Andersonville and other prisons. At one point, he had 6,000 prisoners march from Andersonville to Federal lines at Jacksonville, FL only to have them rebuffed. For years afterward, Imboden blamed the Federal authorities for the continued suffering of Union prisoners.

Imboden's post-war career was one of promoting economic development for Virginia. He was a tireless promoter of coal and iron resources, some of which he discovered (one of the most important bituminous coal seams is named for him). His commercial promotions turned Southwest Virginia and Eastern Kentucky from rural poverty-stricken backwoods into vibrant industrial areas. He chartered and built railroads into the coal and lumber areas. Imboden died in 1895 in Damascus, VA, hailed as much as a pioneering businessman as a Civil War general.

Students of the Shenandoah Valley campaigns, and those just plain interested in the remarkable lives of the lesser-known military leaders will enjoy this biography, one of several in a series published by the University Press of Kentucky.