Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Book Review - Recollections of a Rogue by Samuel E Chamberlain

Recollections of a Rogue, written and illustrated by Samuel E. Chamberlain, Foreword by D.W. Brogan, Introduction and Postscript by Roger Butterfield

London, Museum Press, 1957

After re-reading and reviewing Blood Meridian a little while back, I was scanning some information about Cormac McCarthy and the writing of Blood Meridian, where it was mentioned he got some of his material from the book being reviewed here. Being in the fortunate position of having access to a range of University Libraries, a quick search discovered this book and it was soon in my hands.

Samuel Chamberlain was a well respected person in Boston Massachusetts, a well regarded officer of the Union forces in the Civil War, married for over 50 years, who enjoyed a relaxing retirement in his large house in Worcester.

Before all this occurred, he spent time in the US Army in the Mexican War, where he was (from his own telling) known as Peloncillo Jack, and (if he is to be believed) got up to all kinds of scrapes, both military and on the field of love.

Recollections of a Rogue is a narrative written by Chamberlain just before the outbreak of the Civil War, in which he recounts his earlier adventures with some dash and bravado, in the melodramatic style of novels of the time.

Unlucky in his choice of paramour in Boston, Samuel leaves for his Uncle's farm in Illinois, where he is treated harshly. Never one to take a backward step, Samuel is forced to leave after a run-in with his Uncle and Cousin with an axe. As always in this narrative, the women take Samuel's side - but he is forced to leave, and after a few more adventures he joins the First Dragoons, and is marching off to Mexico.

While he does fight in the battle of Buena Vista in 1847, most of Peloncillo Jack's time in Mexico is spent in picket duty, garrison duty, and in ensuring the US Volunteer forces are not ravaging the countryside and inhabitants of Mexico. He not only must have been writing a diary, but also drew many pictures in a naive style, some of which are reproduced in this publication.

He recounts several close shaves with 'Guerillars', quite a few romantic interludes, and many scrapes with Army authority. These are usually set out in a way that shows Chamberlain is wrongly done by, with officers shown as capricious and cruel.

After one depredation too many, he deserts, and joins with the Glanton gang of scalp hunters, which is the part of this book McCarthy used as a source for Blood Meridian. He makes it clear that Glanton himself was a psychopath, probably due to outrages suffered early in his life - on a few occasions the gang vote down particularly barbarous plans that Glanton cooks up - and that Judge Holden was indeed the prototype of the Judge in McCarthy's book.

After a few short chapters of life with the Glanton gang, the narrative suddenly breaks off - Roger Butterfield surmises that this was the time when Chamberlain went off to serve in the Civil War, and he never got around to finishing his story. Which is a shame.

Recollections of a Rogue is a rollicking read, with adventure after adventure (in fact so many it's hard to believe at the end of his narrative he is still but a teenager). It also provides a fine first-hand account of life on the frontiers at a formative stage of US history.

You might be lucky and find this in a library near you, or perhaps second-hand on the web.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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