Bonney, Dudley, McSween, and Wallace REVIEWING Four Fighters of Lincoln County

Four Fighters of Lincoln County

Author: Robert M. Utley
Genre: Non-Fiction
Year: 1986


For nearly two years during the late 1870s, residents of Lincoln County, New Mexico, took sides and murdered one another in a battle that began as a power struggle and ended as an exercise in vengeance and rage. As the smoke cleared, the Lincoln County War was already beginning to assume mythical proportions as a paradigm of frontier justice, and at least one of its protagonists -- Billy the Kid -- was ready to become a legendary figure. 

In this book, based upon the first of the Calvin P. Horn Lectures in Western History and Culture, Robert M. Utley examines four principal actors in this theater of western violence: Alexander McSween, Billy the Kid, Colonel Nathan A. M. Dudley, and Lew Wallace, governor of New Mexico and author of Ben-Hur. Based primarily on hitherto untapped archival materials and on interviews with surviving members of the families involved in the conflict, Utley's account combines telling detail with broad historical outlines in a fashion that renders this most confusing of episodes in western history remarkably lucid and interesting even to those who have never read another book on the Lincoln County War or on Billy the Kid. 


For the record, I have actually read a couple books on Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War (albeit juvenile non-fiction texts). This is a topic that I have been doing a little studying on lately, for fun, after a brief trip out to Ruidoso, NM, which is IN Lincoln County and where there is a museum featuring Billy the Kid, as well as a scenic highway named after him. You can also drive through the town of Lincoln where many of the events, and the famous locales (the Dolan and Tunstall stores) took place and existed. I got the chance to take a brief drive through there and thought it very interesting although I hadn't read up much at that point and though it was a very quick drive without stopping anywhere within the town (maybe another time). Since then, I've been reading up on the event and the area a lot. So far, this is one of the most detailed books I've read on the matter.

This book contains four essays which were delivered as lectures, which accounts for some of the repetition of a bit of the information (although not enough to be bothersome since each one is contextualized to fit the scope of the person being discussed).

As mentioned in the synopsis, this book covers four figures. Each figure is discussed within a section, meaning that the book has four sections, or four chapters. The chapters actually only go up to 77 pages, although there are numerous notes to refer to in the back, which can extend the reading time quite a bit. However, each section tells a slightly different part of the Lincoln County War and the people involved with it. The book begins with Alexander McSween, who was partnered with John H. Tunstall, whose murder unofficially kicked off the Lincoln County War. Tunstall had been a rival to the Murphy-Dolan group who had a store which competed with Tunstall's within the town of Lincoln. McSween's involvement with Murphy-Dolan, a previous partner, and Tunstall eventually led to lots of murder, posse running, and legal disputes. The McSween portion mainly covers the very start of the conflict and what led to it, court disputes and warrants involving McSween, and his death at the end of the Five-Day Battle. 

The second section is focused on Billy the Kid and his role as a Regulator, seeking justice for Tunstall's death. It discusses the conflicts that the Regulators were involved in, the controversy they created, and Billy's role in events when Lew Wallace took office as governor. The third figure covered in Colonel Dudley, who was a military man in charge of Fort Stanton. His "neutral" involvement in the Five-Day Battle may have turned the tide of the battle against McSween's party (the Regulators and others), despite orders to not get involved in civil affairs within Lincoln. This is one of the most interesting parts of this book, since Dudley's involvement is generally mentioned, but not gone into in as much detail within other texts I have read so far. Particularly of interest is not just how Dudley maintained "neutrality" from his perspective, but all the controversy he stirred up and the bickering he engaged in with Governor Wallace. The fourth section discusses Governor Lew Wallace taking over in New Mexico and his process for "helping" Lincoln get out of its troubles. This section is also interesting because it goes into much more detail in laying out the steps that Wallace took to address the violence and criminal activity going on within Lincoln County, and how misguided and bizarre some of his actions actually were. 

This book is definitely a very academic kind of text (especially since it was published by University of New Mexico Press), although it is pretty straightforward and provides a clear report of events. I don't think everyone will want to read this for fun, but anyone who is interested in either the history of New Mexico or the Lincoln County War will definitely find a lot of interesting information here. I found it to be very enlightening and it synthesized a lot of the events for me in a way that other books I have read have failed to do thus far. It is also very clean cut in the presentation of the information. Each section is a chronological relation of events after brief introduction to how each person came to be in the area or involved with the events. There are lots of references to support the conclusions being drawn and related, which I very much appreciate since most of the other texts I've read have not been at this level, or have failed to provide adequate citations and references, from my perspective. I hadn't initially realized how poorly some of these events were handled by Colonel Dudley and Governor Wallace, so this was definitely an intriguing look into how the Army and government could mishandle situations due to personal shortcomings of appointed officials and limitation of government resources, such as courts and military use (as also seen with a lot of the corruption that happened with law enforcement officials within Lincoln to begin the War itself). I hadn't realized just how simultaneously offhand, yet forceful Governor Wallace was being with the conflicts in Lincoln. Usually I had just read that he issued a pardon, made a deal with Billy the Kid for amnesty after he shot a Sheriff, then failed to have other people uphold the amnesty, which ultimately led to the Kid's arrest (even though he did end up escaping later anyway). Beyond that there is usually just a lot of reference to Wallace working on Ben-Hur and its success as a novel. This book covers more of what Wallace did, although it doesn't really make him look like any better of a governor, truth be told. It honestly makes him look much worse. It mentions his working on Ben-Hur and how it was kind of a distraction from his political work, but it also fully tells what measures and actions he took regarding Lincoln County. 

Overall, I really enjoyed this book, and I think it has a lot of value for anyone wanting to learn more about these figures, Lincoln County, and the history of New Mexico, or even just some of the history of the "Old West". I don't think this book is for everyone, and I think a lot of people would be pretty bored of it, but it could be a great learning or research resource for the mentioned topics. I give Four Fighters of Lincoln County a Lone Star rating of ✯✯✯✯, because of how informative it was on a topic I've already been reading a lot about and how well-organized and straightforward it is.