Teacher, Preacher, Soldier, Spy: The Civil Wars of John R. Kelso | National Humanities Center

Work of the Fellows: Biographies

Teacher, Preacher, Soldier, Spy: The Civil Wars of John R. Kelso

By Christopher Grasso (NHC Fellow, 2016–17)

American History; Military History; American Civil War; Reconstruction Era; Soldiers; Cultural History; United States of America

New York: Oxford University Press, 2021

From the publisher’s description:

A former Methodist preacher and Missouri schoolteacher, John R. Kelso served as a Union Army foot soldier, cavalry officer, guerrilla fighter, and spy. Kelso became driven by revenge after pro-Southern neighbors stole his property, burned down his house, and drove his family and friends from their homes. He vowed to kill twenty-five Confederates with his own hands and, often disguised as a rebel, proceeded to track and kill unsuspecting victims with “wild delight.” The newspapers of the day reported on his feats of derring-do, as the Union hailed him as a hero and Confederate sympathizers called him a monster.

Teacher, Preacher, Soldier, Spy: The Civil Wars of John R. Kelso is an account of an extraordinary nineteenth-century American life. During Reconstruction, Kelso served in the House of Representatives and was one of the first to call for the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. Personal tragedy then drove him west, where he became a freethinking lecturer and author, an atheist, a spiritualist, and, before his death in 1891, an anarchist. Kelso was also a strong-willed son, a passionate husband, and a loving and grieving father. The Civil War remained central to his life, challenging his notions of manhood and honor, his ideals of liberty and equality, and his beliefs about politics, religion, morality, and human nature. Throughout his life, too, he fought private wars—not only against former friends and alienated family members, rebellious students and disaffected church congregations, political opponents and religious critics, but also against the warring impulses in his own character.

In Christopher Grasso's hands, Kelso's life story offers a unique vantage on dimensions of nineteenth-century American culture that are usually treated separately: religious revivalism and political anarchism; sex, divorce, and Civil War battles; freethinking and the Wild West. A complex figure and passionate, contradictory, and prolific writer, John R. Kelso here receives a full telling of his life for the first time.

History / American History / Military History / American Civil War / Reconstruction Era / Soldiers / Cultural History / United States of America /

Grasso, Christopher (NHC Fellow, 2016–17). Teacher, Preacher, Soldier, Spy: The Civil Wars of John R. Kelso. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021.