GRASSO: Teacher, Preacher, Soldier, Spy (2021)

Teacher, Preacher, Solider, Spy: The Civil Wars of John R. Kelso by Christopher Grasso. Oxford University Press, 2021. Cloth, IBSN: 978-0197547328. $34.95.

Born along the middle border in Franklin County, Ohio, in 1831 and dying on the “closing” Colorado frontier in 1891, John R. Kelso lived what can only be described as a uniquely chaotic life. As a young man, he migrated from Ohio to Missouri in “patched trousers” and “dirty bare feet,” found himself swept up in the fervor of the Second Great Awakening, and became a schoolteacher and Methodist evangelist.

Kelso’s first marriage ended in disaster. His second marriage and family were marked by the tragedy of impending Civil War. Missouri secessionists burned his home, which plunged him into the midst of the conflict as a foot soldier and spy. He was driven by equal measures of Unionist idealism and the lust for personal revenge.

Kelso’s status as a war hero in Missouri got him elected to the U.S. Congress in 1864. His growing personal and political radicalism ensured his tenure in Washington was limited to a single term. In later life, Kelso dabbled in fringe political theory, embraced non-denominational forms of spirituality, and enthused over Mormon concepts of polygamous marriage. In 1889, he declared himself an anarchist and set to work on a final manifesto, Government Analyzed, that questioned the bonds of nationalistic patriotism that had driven him and many others to kill their fellow countrymen. It would be published posthumously by his third wife.

The life of this fascinating though eccentric individual is pieced together expertly by historian Christopher Grasso, whose previous book, Skepticism and American Faith [2018], won the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic’s Best Book Prize.

Teacher, Preacher, Soldier, Spy is a dazzling piece of historical detective work, assembled from Kelso’s own autobiographical manuscripts (part of which were presumed lost until Grasso found them in the possession of a distant Kelso relative), regimental records, and Civil War pension file.

The central thesis—insofar as Grasso chases just one thesis—casts the great internal contradictions of Kelso’s thinking and religiosity as an exemplar for the political, social, and spiritual zeitgeists of the early republic and Gilded Age America.

In analyzing Kelso’s marriages and personal life, Grasso builds upon the vast literature on the sexual politics and stressors of frontier marriage. In analyzing Kelso’s “life of the mind,” Grasso touches upon historiographies of Transcendentalism and Romanticism, tent revivalism, chiliastic reform movements, and the “dark turn” in Civil War studies.

Grasso intends for his readers to walk away from this book understanding John R. Kelso as a man of extremes living in an America riven between Black freedom and nativist revanchism; between the backward-looking romance of agrarian myth and forward drive of industrial positivism; and between older, Jeffersonian visions of manhood, home, and individuality and modern theories of class and power introduced by immigration and labor unionism.

Aaron David Hyams is a Lecturer in History at Sam Houston State University.

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