Jack Schaefer is probably best known for his novel, Shane. However, he wrote a number of other books, as well as a history of New Mexico for young people. One of these is Company of Cowards, a historical novel based on an event which may or may not have occurred.
The story’s premise is that eight Union officers who’ve been court-martialed for cowardice are not sent home in disgrace but are instead assigned to a separate military unit set up just for them, Company Q. Whether or not there really was such a unit is a riddle for the historians. Schaeffer’s take on the idea and his exploration of how such a group of men might become a cohesive fighting group and in the process learn to respect themselves again, makes for a fascinating story.
On this website, I only review books that are primarily set in New Mexico prior to statehood in 1912. Company of Cowards meets my criteria because, though Schaeffer’s Company Q is established in the East, the men in it end up at New Mexico’s Fort Union and participate in the 1864 Battle of Adobe Walls. Schaefer’s version of that battle highlights the bravery of the fictional Company Q as well as the military skills of their non-fictional commander Christopher Carson.
Company of Cowards is a well-written book that explores how a man might fail and yet not be a failure. While Company Q serves as the primary focus of this exploration, the events at Adobe Walls also provide an opportunity to consider whether this battle—technically a defeat because Carson’s forces retreated— should actually be characterized in that way.
I recommend this book for several reasons. First, it is a fine exploration of the difficulty or breaking free of the labels others place on us. Second, it’s a wryly humorous look at the Civil War and the decision-making process in any military unit. Third, Schaefer’s loving characterization of New Mexico and careful depiction of the battle of Adobe Walls will be appreciated by anyone who is interested in New Mexico and its history.
Company of Cowards is definitely worth a read!