This review first appeared in the Tally Sheet (Autumn 2016, Volume 63, Number 1)

AGAINST THE GRAIN: Colonel Henry M. Lazelle and the U.S. Army

By James Carson. (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2015.) Pp. xxviii+399. $32.95. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Illustrations. ISBN 978-1-57441-611-4. Cloth.

Author James Carson is a retired CIA and Army officer as well as Henry Lazelle’s great-grandson with more than thirty years of experience as a military intelligence analyst, manager and educator. Carson had ready access to a wealth of materials, not the least of which were Lazelle’s journals. In addition other family papers, unpublished papers and interviews, websites, secondary sources, newspapers and journals, U.S. Government documents and other archives and collections provided a wonderful source. Carson’s experience and this material has enabled him to present a complete biography of a nearly forgotten soldier of the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Henry M. Lazelle is certainly unknown except to Civil War buffs but surprisingly to one who has only a passing interest in that subject matter, Carson fleshes out the man to an admirable degree. From reading Against the Grain one realizes he had an important role in many facets of nineteenth century American history, not only his Civil War service. Lazelle entered West Point at age 17 in July 1850. At the same time others in his class gained fame: Oliver Otis Howard, G.W. Custis Lee – son of General Robert E. Lee - and James E.B. Stuart to name several who became well known. Another classmate gained fame as an artist, James Whistler. The future famous American artist influenced Lazelle but not for the better; he “slipped in academic performance” and also “suffered from numerous lapses in discipline.” [14] By July 1855 Lazelle graduated but it is doubtful if his superiors expected greatness from him. He was commissioned a Brevet 2nd Lieutenant, with a class record of 30th in a class of 34. He had a near record number of demerits. Carson sums up his West Point career as closing with a “rather dismal record in his military subjects.” [22] Through hindsight Carson saw a degree of greatness.

The beginning of his military career was at Fort Bliss, Department of Texas. Here he saw action for the first time – fighting Mescalero Apaches. No training at West Point could have prevented the serious injuries he received in this type of warfare. He did – heroically – extricate his command from potential disaster in spite of his wounds. Certainly this was a major deed on his record. Lazelle not only succeeded in this engagement but in his journal he could proudly record that he had scouted with the famous Kit Carson.

This southwest engagement did not really prepare him for the Civil War, but it demonstrated success in spite of his dismal record as a cadet at West Point. The numerous lapses in discipline, demerits, questioning authority and his contentious nature led to controversy which at times hindered advancement. A most daunting assignment was given to Lazelle in May 1887 when he received orders to oversee the publication of the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion – both Union and Confederate. There were literally tons of documents awaiting to be organized, classified and preserved. Anyone who has utilized these 128 volumes knows how valuable they are. Lazelle was in charge for two years but those years were not without controversy. He was accused of falsifying records but was exonerated – and then dismissed.

The Lazelle family appreciated the years in Washington in spite of the stress and conflict Henry endured. There was excitement and comfort in the city, and Henry endured the controversy. In 1889 he was issued new orders to report to Fort Clark, Texas. As a total change of pace he was then ordered back to West Point. Here he had been suspended and sent back a year but now, after years of military leadership and hardships and disappointments, he was Commander of Cadets – the only one in history who had earned the “shame” of suspension but then the honor of commanding at West Point.

Lazelle’s place in history remains undefined, but he exhibited bravery and courage and honor in his numerous undertakings. The volumes of the official records would not be as useful as they are if not for Henry Lazelle’s persistence to excellence.

With the war over Lazelle was responsible for administering Reconstruction policies in the Carolinas. Then in 1870 he was sent back to the hunting grounds of the Sioux and Cheyenne to protect the railroad and settlers moving into the Black Hills. In 1877 he, with both cavalry and infantry units, worked against Sitting Bull and his warriors. From scouting with Kit Carson, fighting Apache, Sioux and Cheyenne as well as Confederates in the Civil War Lazelle had a career filled with bravery and controversy. Lazelle died July 21, 1917.

Chuck Parsons


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