“When he left us a star went out”: Shelby’s lament at the loss of Colonel Shanks

I mentioned Brigadier-General Joseph Shelby’s writing style.  His report of the second half of Major-General Sterling Price’s 1864 Campaign, written in December of that year, is a shade or two more literature than official correspondence.  Relating the details of his division’s advance to the Osage River, earlier in October:

I reconnoitered the ford warily, showing no force whatever, and found about one regiment drawn up to dispute farther progress, while movements in the rear told that more were coming up. I dismounted Shanks’ and Smith’s regiments, deployed them along the bank, sheltered by heavy timber; held Elliott and Williams well in hand for a dash, and stationed my battery at splendid range. When all these arrangements were completed, a terrible fire of infantry and artillery swept the other bank, swept the opposing squadrons, swept the face of the bluff beyond, and drove everything for shelter to the woods. Now Elliott and Williams dashed away at the charge; the infantry waded after. The swift and beautiful water was torn into foam-flakes that hurried and danced away to the sea, while the ringing shout of a thousand voices told that the ford was won.

No, you are not reading a passage from Shelby’s article in some post-war magazine.  Though he did add, in a post-script, that the report was in error for some detail as most of his papers were lost during the campaign.  Shelby continued, relating the efforts of Colonel David Shanks:

I immediately pushed forward Colonel Shanks with orders to press the retiring enemy hard and heavily. The Federals, re-enforced, came back upon him with great vigor, and the battle raged evenly there. Mounting Smith’s and Shanks’ old regiment, I sent them to his assistance. He ordered a charge along his entire line, and led it with his hat off and the light of battle on his face. That charge was glorious. The enemy, though outnumbering him, fled rapidly, and pressing on far ahead of his best and bravest, he fell in the arms of victory–a bullet through and through his dauntless breast.

Here, in his report, Shelby paused to eulogize Shanks:

I cannot refrain from laying aside for a moment the cold and formal language of a report and paying a just tribute to the absent and wounded hero. Brave, chivalrous, devoted friend of all who needed friend; a lion in battle; “fleet-foot on the correi, sage counsel in cumber;” the Murat of my command. When he left us a star went out, a giant was gone. Whether upon the march or the bivouac, the cold and weary advance or the dark and pitiless retreat, where death is fleet as the wave of its sable banner, he was always the same heroic soldier, ready at all times and under all circumstances.

The scythe of the reaper
Takes the ears that are hoary;
But the voice of the weeper
Wails manhood in glory.

The Murat of my command!  Complete with verse!

Generals don’t write like that anymore.   Few of us do.  It is stuff that won’t translate well as a tweet or text.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 41, Part I, Serial 83, pages 654-5.)


2 thoughts on ““When he left us a star went out”: Shelby’s lament at the loss of Colonel Shanks

  1. In reference to Colonel David Shanks, well Shelby he kinda jumped the gun, Shanks didn’t die this day, he was taken prisoner in Jefferson City, Mo. and he was released at the end of the Civil War! How do I know this, the Civil War Records for the State of Missouri, they say so and I have Researched Col David Shanks with family histories and Genealogy too! My suggestion is look at the Records for yourself. Its easy to do so, suggestion is the reference you find at http://www.fold3.com….. Shanks, he dies in the late 1870s in a Mining town out West!

    • Thanks for your remark (belated remark). You will see that I do not say Shanks was killed that day (I used the word “loss” as that allowed a shorter title without explaining in great detail). Nay, the subject of my post was to highlight the writing offered in Shelby’s report. Most readers are familiar with the dry tone that is typical of official reports. Shelby’s reports are different to say the least.

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