The Last Confederate General:
John C. Vaughn and his East Tennessee Cavalry
By Larry Gordon
(August 2009 Civil War News)
Illustrated, maps, index, 260 pp., 2009. Zenith Press, 400 First Ave. N, Suite 300, Minneapolis, MN, 55401, $27 plus shipping.
John Crawford Vaughn seems to have been just about everywhere during the war, although his military record was not that impressive. This mainly seems to be because he did not have as many resources to work with as the Union did.
Vaughn raised the 3rd Tennessee Infantry in Eastern Tennessee at the outbreak of the war. He led the regiment successfully in a small action at Little Creek, in what would be West Virginia. Then his men were part of the force that arrived from the Valley and helped turn the tide at First Manassas.
His regiment would return to East Tennessee and win a battle near Cumberland Gap that earned Vaughn a promotion to brigadier general. After that he commanded a brigade of East Tennessee troops: the 60th, 61st and 62nd Tennessee.
This force was routed at Big Black River Bridge in the Vicksburg Campaign, with the 60th and 61st surrendering. After the siege Vaughn was sent back to East Tennessee and commanded forces that tried to deal with the local Union guerrillas.
Then he suffered through the loss at Piedmont. While he received much blame at the time Gordon argues quite well that the Confederates were outgunned and outmanned and that Vaughn does not deserve much blame for what transpired.
After a poor performance cooperating with D.H. Hill at Lynchburg, Vaughn turned in a solid effort in Early’s invasion of Maryland.
After that campaign he was sent back to East Tennessee and suffered his worst loss at Morristown on Oct. 28, 1864. There his lack of military training showed as he left a superior position, one that protected his flanks, for one that allowed the Union enough space to use their superior numbers to attack those flanks.
Vaughn lost four cannon, 85 dead and 225 captured from his force of roughly 2,000. No mention is made of how many wounded he had, but it must have been at least a 100. The Union lost eight killed and 18 wounded.
Vaughn performed better when he was leading smaller-scale guerilla style operations in East Tennessee, mostly with cavalry. He earned a reputation as a brutal guerrilla fighter as his men gave no quarter when dealing with bushwhackers, though this was partly because they received no quarter either.
At the end of the war Vaughn served for a few weeks as part of Jefferson Davis’ party traveling towards Texas. Vaughn is connected to some of the myths of the lost Confederate gold because of this, but no one will ever know the truth of that story.
In many respects Vaughn was like most other Confederate generals. He was a capable leader who was neither exceptionally good nor bad at warfare.
One part of Vaughn’s story that is unique. He was the only general on either side whose family was captured and imprisoned. In July 1864 they were arrested and sent to Jeffersonville, Ind. The Vaughn women were released sometime in September, but Vaughn’s father was kept in prison until the war was over.
I think Gordon did an admirable job with a tough figure. Vaughn was neither a great general nor a really horrible general. He did a terrible job at Morristown and his defeats at Big Black River Bridge and Piedmont were more the result of his commanders’ actions than anything he did.
When he commanded small forces in small battles he was quite often successful. He did his best work in East Tennessee and has largely been lost to history.
Most buffs have probably seen his name a time or two but do not know much about his whole story. Now they can learn more about this man. It’s not a great book or an instant classic, but it is a solid biography of a lesser-known general.
Nicholas Kurtz graduated from the University of Colorado-Denver in 2001 with a B.A. in history. He loves wandering battlefields and is an aspiring author. Although he finds all aspects of the war interesting his primary interest is the Western Theater.