Saturday, May 21, 2011

Patrick: "CAMPAIGN FOR WILSON'S CREEK: The Fight for Missouri Begins"

[Campaign for Wilson's Creek: The Fight for Missouri Begins by Jeffrey L. Patrick (McWhiney Foundation-State House Press, 2011). Softcover, 18 maps, photos, notes, index. Pages main/total:201/224. ISBN:978-1-893114-55-5 $24.95]

Unlike many other prominent Trans-Mississippi theater campaigns, Wilson's Creek and the 1861 Missouri campaign have received a fairly decent amount of attention from publishers.  An Account of the Battle of Wilson's Creek or Oak Hills by Holcombe and Adams first appeared in 1883. Ed Bearss's The Battle of Wilson's Creek, which has gone through many editions since 1961, remains perhaps the best tactical treatment, but the finest overall account of the battle is William G. Piston and Richard Hatcher's Wilson's Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It (UNC Press, 2000). In terms of earlier events in the campaign, the running battle that preceded Wilson's Creek has been covered very well by David Hinze and Karen Farnham in their book The Battle Of Carthage: Border War In Southwest Missouri July 5, 1861 (Savas, 1997). The even earlier clash at Boonville, Missouri has been addressed well in Paul Rorvig's January 1992 Missouri Historical Review article "The Significant Skirmish: The Battle of Boonville, June 17, 1861". Most recently, James Denny and John Bradbury widely covered events from the first year of the war in The Civil War's First Blood: Missouri, 1854-1861 (Missouri Life, 2007). Finally, even though the title implies a concentration on the battle itself, William Riley Brooksher's Bloody Hill: The Civil War Battle of Wilson's Creek (Brassey's, 1995) provides instead a rather broad overview of the entire campaign. Bringing us to the present is Wilson's Creek National Battlefield librarian Jeff Patrick's Campaign for Wilson's Creek: The Fight for Missouri Begins. It is similar in scope to Brooksher's work but is a far better and deeper researched battle history and campaign overview.

Patrick covers the entire length of Union General Nathaniel Lyon's 1861 Missouri campaign, from the Camp Jackson Affair through the Union army's retreat from Springfield in the wake of their Wilson's Creek defeat. Augmented by a dozen operational scale line drawings, the campaign movements of both sides, from St. Louis in the east to Cowskin Prairie in the extreme southwest corner of the state, are summarized in the text. While the character and results of the fighting at Boonville and Carthage are only briefly addressed, the planning and conduct of the Battle of Wilson's Creek is skillfully outlined at battalion and regimental levels of detail, and from the perspectives of both sides, although a better sense of the ebb and flow of the "Bloody Hill" fighting might have been achieved. In addition to integrating into his narrative the published experiences of celebrated witnesses and participants like journalist Franc Wilkie and infantryman Willie Tunnard of the 3rd Lousisiana, Patrick also injects quoted correspondence and memoir observances from many less well known figures. As with other volumes in the series, biographical sidebars are sprinkled throughout the book. Created by historian and cartographer Donald Frazier, the six Wilson's Creek battlefield maps provide an excellent rendering of the terrain, as well as full representations of unit positions and movements.

While readers familiar with the campaign literature will not find much in the way of significant revelation, there are some surprises offered. For instance, I was not aware that a large proportion of Colonel Franz Sigel's infantry and artillery ranks were filled with brand new soldiers recruited to replace those discharged during the brief period between Carthage and Wilson's Creek. In some cases, two-thirds of the officers were new to the job. This provides a new lens through which to help explain the brigade's poor performance, notwithstanding Sigel's inept Telegraph Road deployment. The author is also more forgiving than prior writers and historians of John C. Fremont's perceived lack of support for Lyon, recognizing that the Pathfinder was responsible for a large department with other pressing military concerns, primarily the defenses of St. Louis and Cairo. According to Patrick, there is some evidence of Fremont's ordering of three regiments to Lyon's aid, though none reached him.

Jeff Patrick's Campaign for Wilson's Creek is arguably the best overview of the campaign to date, and easily one of the most impressive volumes to appear from the publisher's Civil War Campaigns and Commanders series. It is highly recommended reading for students of the early fighting in Missouri, novices and veterans to the subject matter alike.

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