In search of Will: One book falls short while another succeeds
Shortly after completing Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier discussed the possible subject of his next novel. Frazier said that he wanted to write about the life of a white man who was made an Indian chief, served in the government in Washington, D.C., fought on the side of the South in the Civil War by leading a band of guerrilla warriors and eventually wound up dying in a mental institution. That man was William Holland Thomas.
Frazier acknowledged that Thomas fascinated him because this man – known to the Cherokees as “Wil Usti” (Little Will) — was amazingly “adaptable.” During his career (1805-1893), Thomas not only survived the tumultuous historic events of his time — he usually prospered. Beginning as an orphaned apprentice-clerk in a mountain store, Thomas became the “adopted son” of Chief Yunaguska and the legal advocate of the Cherokees in Washington. As a self-taught attorney, Thomas acquired federal recognition for the tribe and, following the infamous “Trail of Tears,” successfully defended them against repeated attempts to “remove them to the West” where the majority of the Southeastern tribes now resided.
Named as Yunaguska’s successor, the “white chief” also became a state senator, and following North Carolina’s reluctant secession from the Union, he organized and led an armed band of Cherokee volunteers, pledging to defend the region against the encroachment of Union forces, from Tennessee and Virginia. The Thomas Legion later grew to become a Confederate detachment of some 1,500 soldiers that played a major role in the defense of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee.
The life of William Holland Thomas is an appealing topic sought by historians: a dramatic, tragic, gifted, and flawed man. Yet, in the hand of Paul A. Thomsen, the “Rebel Chief” becomes as leaden and colorless as biographer Thomsen’s inept and wooden prose. Despite the inherent drama of such events as the execution of the Cherokee rebel/martyr T’sali, the Trail of Tears and the drama (and controversy) attending Thomas’ leadership of the Confederate force called the “Junaluska Zouaves,” Thomsen manages to reduce everything to a spiritless chronicle of dates, treaties and pretentious language.
Although this reviewer was tempted to abandon the field, I trudged on in the futile hope that Thomsen would redeem himself. Alas, the dreary catalogue of lifeless events continued without respite. Despite Thomsen’s documentation, (almost one-third of the book is footnotes), this entire work possesses a curious remoteness to both Thomas and the historic period in which he lived. In addition to the tedious, convoluted sentence structure, the author’s stylistic limitations are excessive. For example, Thomas is repeatedly identified by the awkward appellation, the “Caucasian chief,” General Winfield Scott is the “stout military officer” and General Wool is always “brevetted.” All of the historic vitality of the era is stifled, wrapped in the winding sheet of Thomsen’s pretentious language.
Why review such a dismal book? Well, I originally purchased Rebel Chief in the hope that scholarly research may have uncovered addition information about some of the most controversial aspects of William H. Thomas’ life. Instead, I found myself returning to an earlier biography: Confederate Colonel and Cherokee Chief by E. Stanly Godbold, Jr. and Mattie U. Russell. (Published in 1990 and followed by a paperback version in 2001). After slogging through Rebel Chief, I did so with a profound appreciation for Godbold and Russell’s imaginative, descriptive detail. From the opening sentence, which describes Thomas’ journey (an orphaned child on a horse) to Felix Walker’s store on Soco, “Wil Usti” becomes a vibrant human being. In addition, Godbold and Russell recreate the physical and cultural world that Thomas inhabited, complete with Cherokee traditions and customs.
In Confederate Colonel and Cherokee Chief, the co-authors capture not only the hopes and dreams of Thomas but the characters of Yonaguska, Felix Walker, Sarah Love Thomas, Zebulon Vance and a host of personages whose lives influenced and/or shaped William Holland Thomas’ career.
Despite the information contained in these two biographies, there are still some unanswered questions. What are the specific details of Thomas’ involvement in the capture and execution of T’sali? Did Thomas contribute to alcoholism among the Cherokees by selling “spirits” in his stores? To what extent are the court martial charges against Thomas justified? (Records indicate that he was repeatedly arrested and charged. However, in all instances, the charges were later dismissed). Is it possible that the mental illness that resulted in Thomas’ commitment to a mental institution after the Civil War was a factor in his performance as a commanding officer during the last year of his service?
If Charles Frazier does write a book based on the life of William Holland Thomas, perhaps he will provide some insights into these unresolved issues. Until then, Wil Usti remains one of our most provocative and mysterious historical figures.