History – even relatively recent history – has at least two faces, depending on who is telling the tale. Thomas Moonlight was a native of Boysack Muir, in St Vigeans, near Arbroath, born in 1833 and emigrated to America at the age of twelve, unaccountably bored with his situation as a junior assistant to a draper in Scotland. For some years he was a farmer in the gloriously named Kansas settlement of Kickapoo (probably not as exotic as it sounds), but then joined the U.S. Army in 1853 and became a famous and at times infamous soldier in the American Civil War and then the subsequent Indian Wars.
|Broken hero? Thomas Moonlight.|
Was there ever a better name for a dashing adventurer than Colonel Moonlight? There is a legend about the origination of this distinctive name. Some time in the middle of the 17th century an Angus farmer and his wife sitting at their hearth were disturbed by the sound of a crying baby at their doorstep. They opened the door and brought the chilled and abandoned bairn inside. There was no clue as to who had left the child there. For some reason, whether it was whimsy or some odd superstition, they did not give the foundling their own surname even though they brought it up as one of their own, but they gave it the name of ‘Moonlight’, after the condition of the night on which he was found. A twist to this ancestral fable is attached to Thomas’s contemporary, the intrepid George Fairweather Moonlight (1832-1884), a gold-digger who sought his fortune in America and then New Zealand. Though he was actually born in Glenbervie in the Mearns, legend says he was discovered as an abandoned child on the hard, moonlit streets of Aberdeen one night. (Prosaic people may prefer to believe that the Angus surname actually comes from the place-name Munlichty.)
When the war between the states broke out Moonlight enlisted for the northern states as an ordinary soldier. Quickly rising to the rank of orderly sergeant, Moonlight went from strength to strength in the subsequent campaigns and he eventually became colonel of the Eleventh Kansas Cavalry. He dazzled at the battled of Dry Wood, Pea Ridge and Westport. Then he reigned in 1864 at the end of the Civil War. Although one army veteran recalled more that 40 years after Moonlight’s death that ‘there was no better or braver man in the Civil War’, it remains hard to judge how effective a fighter he was in the campaigns. He wrote his own account of his military adventures, but a recent analysis has concluded that ‘He caustically evaluated the performance of others while lauding his own actions’ (‘ “The Eagle of the 11th Kansas”: Wartime Reminiscences of Colonel Thomas Moonlight,’ K. Lindberg, M. Matthews, T. Moonlight, The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Vol. 62, No. 1, Spring 2003.)
The record of Moonlight’s reputation becomes distinctly darker when he re-enlisted to fight the native Americans in 1865. Colonel Moonlight has been blamed for the disastrous Battle of Platte Bridge. Moonlight was in charge of the famous Fort Laramie when he sallied out with 500 men in search of his native enemies in May 1865. Unfortunately the force was led in entirely the wrong direction. Things worsened the following week when, on the 26th May, he captured two Oglala braves and had them hanged. His men – or at least some of them – warned him against his subsequent move: leaving the corpses twisting on the gallows, to the fury of the local population. The following month there was a further misjudgement. He led a lightning raid out of Laramie which exhausted the horses and let a large section of his force to limp back to their base. A raid by Lakota braves deprived the remainder of their steeds and the men were humiliatingly forced to walk 60 miles back to their fort. The colonel was said to have been drunk during the episode and, even worse, had not put a guard on his remaining horses. The antagonized and ascendant Lakota Sioux and Cheyennes continued to raid army camps and ambush stagecoaches and on 26th July 1865 a native force of some thousands defeated the army at Platte Bridge. There were relatively few army casualties, but the defeat was still humiliating. On the 7th July Moonlight was thrown out of the army.
And yet, Moonlight was not only a survivor, but proved by his native talent and character in the equally ferocious area of politics and diplomacy. He became Secretary of State of Kansas in 1868. Four years later he became a Democratic state senator and in 1887 he was appointed governor of the Wyoming Territory. He became minister to Bolivia in 1893 and died in Leavenworth, Kansas on 7th February 1899.