The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1975, Volume 21, Number 1
James E. Moss, Editor

Book Review

David J. Weber, Book Review Editor

No Tears for the General. The Life of Alfred Sully, 1821-1879. By Langdon Sully. Palo Alto: American West Publishing Company, 1974. Bibliography. End notes. Illustrations. Index. 255 pages. $9.95.

Reviewed by William Hanchett, Professor of History, San Diego State University. Among his publications is IRISH. Charles G. Halpine in Civil War America (1970).

Few tears indeed have been shed for General Alfred Sully. There is no sketch of his eventful career in the Dictionary of American Biography, which includes articles on many lesser figures, and only specialists in the Indian campaigns of the mid-nineteenth century are likely to recognize his name. This volume by his grandson may not succeed in bringing him out from the shadows cast by more glamorous Indian fighters, but it ought at least to illuminate the fact that he is there. Certainly it ought to introduce him to the large and (for him) new constituency of people interested in California during the years immediately following the American conquest.

In fact, the most interesting and original section of the book—about one-third of the whole—deals with his years as an Army officer in California, mostly in Monterey, where he arrived in 1849 after having fought in the Mexican War. Far from being resented by native Californians as one of their conquerors, he was warmly received by them, and lived for a time in the home of Don Manuel Jimeno and his wife, Doña Angustias, a daughter of Don José de la Guerra y Noriega, of Santa Barbara, one of the richest and most powerful men in California. The Jimeno home was a center of cultural and intellectual stimulation in Monterey, and was a welcome refuge for Sully after the austerity of West Point, from which he graduated in 1841, and of the military life he had led ever since. Perhaps it reminded him of his own home, for he was the son of the famous portrait artist, Thomas Sully.

But Sully found more than a humanistic sanctuary with the Jimenos, for he fell in love with their fifteen year old daughter, Manuela, and proposed marriage. Her family objected, for Sully was a Protestant and without fortune, and so the couple eloped. An estrangement of several months from Manuela’s proud family resulted, but ultimately there was a reconciliation, and Don Manuel presented his son-in-law with servants and the use of a large tract of land. Sully now began to consider resigning from the Army and settling down to the pleasant and pastoral life of a California don. But tragedy ended the dream. Not long after giving birth to a son, Manuela ate some poisoned fruit, said to have been sent by a disappointed suitor, and died a violent death. Less than three weeks later, the son also died, the victim of accidental strangulation. Langdon Sully believes that his grandfather never recovered from these sudden and brutal losses, and that he sought to escape their torment by burying himself in his military career, becoming ever after “a hard-bitten, unemotional soldier.”

Sully left California in 1853, and spent most of the rest of the decade as an Army engineer building forts across the West for the protection of the increasing numbers of overland travelers. It was rough and difficult work, and guarding ill-informed and inexperienced immigrants, some of whom would not recognize the danger from Indians and some of whom grossly over-reacted to it, was often frustrating.

During the Civil War, Sully commanded brigades at such battles as the Seven Days, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville, and eventually rose to the rank of brevet major general of volunteers. Perhaps because he had linked his wartime career to that of the controversial George B. McClellan, Sully was transferred to the trans-Mississippi West a few months after McClellan’s removal from command. He was bitter about leaving a major theater of the war of the rebellion, but there was a war of another kind in Minnesota, the war of the Sioux uprising, and few officers could match his experience in fighting Indians. As a matter of fact, he spent most of the rest of his life fighting them and urging the government to treat them with fairness, as well as firmness.

Wherever he went, Sully took his sketch pad with him, and the drawings reproduced here of Indians and buffaloes, forts and missions, ships and sailors, enhance our enjoyment and show that he shared substantially in his father’s gift.

Some 350 of Sully’s letters, most of them written to a sister, have survived and excerpts from them (not always clearly dated) comprise a major part of the book. When a large number of them are concentrated within a relatively short time-span, Langdon Sully has skillfully linked them together in a fascinating personal narrative in which his grandfather tells his own story. But the post-California letters are less frequent and less informative, and though they are supplemented by newspaper articles, official reports, and some exposition by the author, we learn much more about what Sully did than about what he was. Perhaps the inner man was so badly scarred he wished to hide even from his own grandson. If so, it is cause for tears, after all.