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The Jessie Scouts
The Jessie Scouts

Our Price: $29.95
Pages: 420
Trim: 6 x 9
Format: Hardcover
ISBN-13: 978-098843830-9

A Civil War Historical Novel

by David L. Phillips

They were normally called "Sheridan's Scouts" by the Union soldiers serving in the Shenandoah Valley during the summer of 1864, but they were also known as "Jessie Scouts" by the Confederates opposing Sheridan's army. While the original Jessie Scouts were formed in St. Louis in 1861 -- and named for Jessie Fremont -- these men came east with General John C. Fremont when he was transferred to command in western Virginia in early 1862. But regardless of the name they were called, these volunteer soldiers served Sheridan well by collecting military intelligence regarding General Jubal A. Early's opposing Confederates. The danger these scouts faced was increased by the fact that they often wore a Confederate uniform while scouting.

This is the story of the young scouts during the turbulent last year of the American Civil War and it is centered on the relationship with their principal agent, Rebecca Wright, a young Quaker schoolteacher living in Winchester, Virginia. Recruited indirectly by Thomas Laws, an elderly slave and produce farmer who served as Sheridan's courier into the Confederate town, Rebecca Wright sent key information to Sheridan that helped him plan the attack that captured Winchester while removing a potential threat to Washington, D.C., during the crucial 1864 presidential election period.

The scouts in this book were all real, as was Rebecca Wright, and the stories of their hazardous operations were derived from actual accounts of their activities that were recorded in a series of letters written to his parents by scout Arch Rowand. These courageous scouts continued to serve long after the victory at Appomattox and the account of their final and disastrous scouting into Mexico in late 1866 is based on actual records.

About the Author:

A former member of the U.S. Army Special Forces and the descendant of four soldiers who served in the Confederate army, Civil War historian David Phillips is a specialist in the Allegheny Campaigns and Union special operations. He is the author of several books on the Civil War, including War Diaries: The 1861 Kanawha Campaigns, War Stories: The War in West Virginia, and three volumes in the Civil War Chronicles series: Daring Raiders, Crucial Land Battles, and A Soldier's Story. Phillips lives and writes in Leesburg, Virginia.


Review by Arturo G. Munoz, Georgetown University Graduate School where he teaches courses in "Intelligence and Diplomacy."

The Jessie Scouts is an extraordinary historical novel because it is based on extensive historical research on primary sources, including documents that have not been cited previously in the literature of the Civil War. It was nominated for the 2015 Michael Shaara Award for Excellence in Civil War Fiction. The author, David L. Phillips, has previously published six non-fiction studies of that period, some of them sold at national and state parks and historical sites. Especially popular is Maps of the Civil War: The Roads They Took. He is working on a non-fiction study of the Jessie Scouts that is forthcoming. However, the story of the Jessie Scouts is so dramatic that Phillips decided first to give it a fictional treatment in order to put it in the hands of people who normally might not read historical studies. This creative decision has produced a very compelling work that should attract the attention of a wider audience beyond the ranks of Civil War aficionados.

The historic Jessie Scouts were volunteers who served Union forces by conducting reconnaissance and espionage behind enemy lines, often dressed as Confederate soldiers in order to facilitate their clandestine activities. On certain occasions, they went beyond intelligence-gathering and conducted surprise raids and ambushes, succeeding in capturing important Confederate officers or couriers. It was an extremely risky endeavor. The Jessie Scouts were considered to be dastardly spies by the Confederates, particularly if they were caught wearing Confederate uniforms. Captured Jessie Scouts were likely to be hung on the spot, sometimes via a “field expedient hanging” with the reins of their own horses. Many of these types of episodes described in the novel are true events, or based on true events, which gives the narrative more power and credibility.

Phillips integrates the adventures of the Jessie Scouts with a separate theme concerning the pro-Union espionage activities conducted by a Quaker schoolteacher, Rebecca Wright, aided by a slave, Thomas Laws, who carried in his mouth secret messages wrapped in tin foil disguised by chewing tobacco. Rebecca and Thomas were real historical figures who did conduct espionage for General Sheridan as described in the novel. In the old town section of Winchester today, in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, a commemorative plaque reminds visitors of these two local spies, who helped turn the tide of battle in favor of Union forces. To tie together these strands, Phillips takes poetic license and creates a love story between Rebecca and a Confederate officer, whom she ultimately betrays for the cause. It is a timeless story of espionage dealing with its essential deception and betrayal, for the greater good.

Much has been written about the characteristics, purpose and validity of historical novels. H. Scott Dalton, in his essay, “What is Historical Fiction?” argues that the main difference between non-fiction history and fictional history is the latter’s emphasis on individual character development. A good historical novel allows the reader to experience history through the eyes of its characters. In this respect, Grant Rodwell, in his study, Whose History? Engaging History Students through Historical Fiction, writes that historical fiction “personalizes history, making historical events come to life,” evoking “emotional and personal connections to historical characters and events.” According to Dalton, “we write historical fiction, and read it, not to learn about history so much as to live it… It is the closest we can get to experiencing the past without having been there…The historian, at the most basic level, seeks to answer the question ‘What happened?’ By contrast, the writer of historical fiction seeks to explain ‘What was it like?’” as exemplified in Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.

By these criteria, Phillips succeeds admirably. He creates a series of credible, attractive characters with whom readers can identify emotionally as they risk their lives for what they believe. Of the several categories of story lines summarized by Dalton, Phillips’ work conforms most closely to “depictions of real historical figures in the context of the challenges they faced.” The Jessie Scouts who act out their adventures and passions in this book are genuine historical figures who left behind letters and other documents used by Phillips to develop the drama. The meticulous historical research upon which this novel is based infuses the setting and the action. Union spies, and the adversaries who sought to catch them, vividly come to life, providing a unique perspective on a violent national conflict that continues to reverberate to this day.

By Jim Gant, Special Forces, retired, and author of "One Tribe at a Time."

The Jessie Scouts is a thoroughly researched, powerful and wonderfully written historical novel about a little-known group of men called “Jessie Scouts,” who fought bravely in our nation’s bloodiest war – the Civil War. This novel should have a place on the bookshelf of anyone who enjoys studying the Civil War and the warriors who fought in it. The Jessie Scouts is written from the heart by David Phillips, a man who has spent much of his life behind the trigger in Vietnam and elsewhere. Being behind a trigger also puts you in the crosshairs of others – a fact that comes out in Jessie Scouts time and time again.

As I was reading Jessie Scouts, I wrote notes in the margins. My first note says: "I knew these men." I knew immediately that the characters Phillips writes so brilliantly about are drawn both from historical figures and from the lives and personalities of men Phillips fought alongside. These Jessie Scouts are similar to the great Special Forces fighters in Vietnam with whom Phillips shared blood, sweat and tears. I was constantly reminded about the exploits of the warriors from MACV-SOG. How many times did we "step out of the ranks simply to see what could have been more dangerous than what they <we> had been doing up to that point" (page 67)? I found the description of tactics, techniques and procedures fascinating and very similar to the TTPs we use today. I found Phillip’s description of the emotional and psychological toll of warfare on all the characters incredibly authentic. He expertly portrays the human face of war, the situations and relationships that are not easily understood by those who have never been in combat – including the associated excitement. In the novel, the Chief of the Jessie Scouts, Captain Young describes "enjoying the fear associated with combat" (page 174) and its "narcotic effect". I was also interested to learn that General Sheridan had to deal with money crunchers, exclaiming: "Damn, the accountants!”

Military history buffs and Special Operations Forces (SOF) soldiers will enjoy reading the book and will learn many “tips of the trade” used not only in the Civil War but also in wars that the United States is currently engaged in.

Simply put, The Jessie Scouts is a great book, written by a great writer, and it comes with my highest recommendation.