Monday, September 05, 2011

Author Q & A: Jeffrey L. Patrick on Wilson's Creek

Jeff Patrick is the NPS librarian at Wilson's Creek National Battlefield. His Civil War publications include his editing of Thomas Wise Durham's memoir Three Years With Wallace's Zouaves and Fighting for Liberty and Right, the diary of William B. Miller that he co-edited with Robert Willey. His latest book, and the subject to be covered here, is Campaign for Wilson's Creek: The Fight for Missouri Begins, an excellent overview of Union general Nathaniel Lyon's 1861 campaign.  

DW: Hi Jeff.  My most recent visit to WCNB was back in 1997. What are the most noticeable changes to the park and visitor center that have occurred since?  

JP: We have made a number of significant changes to the park since 1997. In 2003, we dedicated a new wing to our Visitor Center, consisting of an exhibit room, multipurpose (meeting) room, a dedicated space for the library, and administrative offices. In 2005, we purchased the General Sweeny Museum (the collection and museum building), and the adjoining house and property (20 acres). We have also purchased about 200 acres on the southwest corner of the battlefield (site of the Southern encampment a few days before the battle and a Union camp in November and December 1862), and have secured conservation easements on other property adjoining the battlefield. And finally, in 2009, we purchased a large private collection of Missouri Civil War photographs owned by the late Jim Joplin of Springfield. All in all, some significant achievements in the past decade or so.  

DW: What WCNB events and initiatives do you and your fellow staff members have planned for the Sesquicentennial period?  

JP: Our major sesquicentennial events concluded a few weeks ago with the battle anniversary commemoration on August 10 and the reenactment on August 12-14 (the latter hosted by the Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield Foundation and held on nearby private land). That’s not to say that we’re “off the hook” for the next four years. We recently launched a Virtual Museum of the Civil War in the Trans-Mississippi Theater (www.civilwarvirtualmuseum.org) featuring artifacts from our collection, we will launch a new virtual “Trans-Mississippi Photograph Album” before the end of the year, and we are about to start planning new Visitor Center exhibits that will also tell the story of the war west of the Mississippi River. I’m sure we’ll be involved in other 150th ceremonies and activities in our area as well.  

DW: A number of NPS historians and park rangers associated with eastern theater battlefield parks have joined the blogging ranks. Can you speculate on why their western and Trans-Mississippi colleagues have not shown the same vigor?  

JP: I’ll admit that my western and Trans-Mississippi colleagues have been a little hesitant to jump into blogging, but that’s not to say that there aren’t some great blogs out there relating to our particular corner of the war. Dr. Jane Johansson’s “Trans-Mississippian” blog is excellent, and my NPS colleagues Bob Pollock and Lee White have blogs that are well worth reading as well (the “Yesterday and Today” and “Army of Tennessee” blogs, respectively). Matt Matthews, another friend of mine, also maintains a great site called “Jayhawkers and Red Legs,” dealing with those controversial but fascinating characters who operated in eastern Kansas and western Missouri. I think others will appear as we move through the 150th cycle.  

DW: What are some of your favorite and/or most historically significant manuscript holdings at the park library?  

JP: As park librarian, I handle “bound, printed and other material”—in other words, books, maps and microfilm. The park’s archival collection falls under the bailiwick of the museum curator and museum technician. That said, we are fortunate to have some wonderful archival materials in the park collection. The Albert Ellithorpe diary, for instance, was started by a Missouri Confederate soldier named George Falconer, then “captured” by Union Indian Home Guard officer Ellithorpe at a skirmish in the Indian Territory in 1862. Ellithorpe included a number of interesting details about life in the Trans-Mississippi Theater, such as when two Southern ladies joined him at breakfast. He described them as “regular snuff lickers, smokers & tobacco chewers,” and “a fair specimen of Arkansas she rebels.” And of course, we have some “pieces of the true cross,” such as the pass that allowed Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon’s relatives to move through Southern lines to retrieve his body. Fortunately, quite a few items from our archives have been digitized and are now viewable at ozarkscivilwar.org.  

DW: It's been a while since I've checked out that site (www.ozarkscivilwar.org). I'll have to revisit it soon. Are there any pieces in the collection that you believe have been undeservedly neglected?  

JP: I think there are a number of “underutilized” pieces in the park collection. Our photograph collection is outstanding, thanks to the purchase of the Sweeney and Joplin collections. We also have a great weapons collection. Although we have representative examples of many Civil War arms, we do have a number connected with specific events in our theater, including a Sharps carbine used during the 1850s in “Bleeding Kansas,” and a rifle captured by Captain Nathaniel Lyon’s troops at Camp Jackson (St. Louis) on May 10, 1861. I’m also very proud of our flags and uniforms. Apart from our outstanding and often-reproduced “Cherokee Braves” flag, we have many terrific Trans-Mississippi Union and Confederate flags on display and in storage, and several identified uniforms.  

DW: Getting to your recent book, some very good Wilson’s Creek battle histories (e.g. the Bearss and Piston & Hatcher books) already exist. What prompted you to take your own shot at it?  

JP: Several years ago, my friend Dr. Don Frazier of the McWhiney Foundation stopped by the battlefield. As we talked about our latest projects, he said, “We need a Wilson’s Creek volume in our ‘Campaigns and Commanders’ series—why don’t you do it?” I thought about it for a nanosecond and said, “Sure, I’ll give it a try.” In 2002, the McWhiney Foundation published an excellent volume on Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove by Bill Shea, so a volume on Wilson’s Creek seemed a natural companion piece. And, since the publication of Piston-Hatcher in 2000, a fair amount of new information has been uncovered about the campaign.  

DW: Writers generally deal harshly with John C. Fremont’s conduct as Nathaniel Lyon’s superior. In your book, you adopted a more sympathetic view of Fremont’s situation. Can you elaborate on that?  

JP: In my nearly twenty years at Wilson’s Creek, I’ve heard Fremont used as a “punch line” many times, by both historians who have researched the period, and by buffs who barely know his name. Only the mention of Franz Sigel elicits more chuckles from visitors, and that’s not entirely fair either. I must admit I have a bit of a soft spot in my heart for J.C.F. Although he was certainly in over his head when he took command of the Western Department, and made significant mistakes, in all fairness he had an incredibly difficult job and many challenges—dealing with Confederate forces in southeast and southwest Missouri and State Guardsmen in northeast Missouri, defending Cairo, Illinois, arming and equipping thousands of volunteers, dealing with his wife (just kidding), etc. I don’t believe that Fremont “sacrificed” Nathaniel Lyon, either. When it comes right down to it, Fremont told Lyon that if he remained in southwest Missouri, and didn’t retreat to the railhead at Rolla, he did so on his own responsibility. He could have acted more aggressively to help Lyon, but he didn’t abandon him either.  

DW: Speaking of Lyon, what is your opinion of the controversial profile of the general presented by Christopher Phillips in his biography Damned Yankee? Has the popular view of Lyon been unduly influenced by Phillips’s foray into psycho-biography?  

JP: Based on my conversations with battlefield visitors, I think the popular view of Lyon has been influenced by two things. First, our old interpretive film, replaced a couple of years ago by a new Wide Awake Films production. If there was one thing that visitors remembered from the old film, it was the quote by Dr. William Hammond, who served with Lyon in Kansas. In his postwar reminiscences, Hammond wrote that Lyon was “mentally unbalanced” yet “intelligent” and “honest.” I wish I had a dollar for every time a visitor mentioned that in a conversation. The other major influence on Lyon’s public image is Damned Yankee by Chris Phillips. I have a great deal of respect and admiration for Chris. He was the first historian since the 1860s to attempt any sort of comprehensive and objective biography of one of the most controversial figures in Missouri history. I’ve talked to people who think Chris is right on the mark in psycho-analyzing Lyon, and others who think he overstated his case. I tend to adopt a position somewhere in the middle. I think Lyon was extremely motivated and driven. Even those who don’t particularly care for him admit that he “got things done” in the summer of 1861. He complained to his superiors, certainly, but he also aggressively pursued the enemy and got results. On the other hand, he was a quirky, uncompromising and rather disagreeable person, and I agree with Bill Piston that you would not want Lyon to date your sister. A researcher friend of mine is now compiling a massive database of Lyon material, and hopefully he’ll turn all of that research into a new biography of the “Connecticut Yankee.”  

DW: I find myself somewhere in the middle, too, and would certainly welcome another scholarly look at Lyon's life and military career. In what other ways does your interpretation of the battle and campaign differ from that of previous writers and historians?

JP: In very broad terms, my interpretation of the battle is similar to what you will find in other works. I devoted more attention to the fighting at Boonville and Carthage, though, as I think both actions had an enormous effect on the outcome of the campaign. Although I cited some of the standard sources (you really can’t avoid doing so), I also utilized material that other writers chose not to use, or information that has been uncovered in the last decade or so. And finally, I tried to stay within the bounds set for the “Campaigns and Commanders” series—a relatively short (less than 200 pages), fast-paced narrative, with lively writing and lots of quotes from participants.  

DW: Finally, are you working on any new publishing projects?  

JP: Like everyone else, I have several ideas “percolating.” I would like to have another go at Fremont and his “hundred days” in Missouri, making sense of just what went right and wrong during those crucial weeks in Missouri in the fall of 1861. I would also like to have a look at the 1st Iowa Infantry. Although the “Greyhounds” were only a ninety-day unit, and participated in only one major battle, at Wilson’s Creek, they were an interesting lot, and produced quite a bit of primary source material. And, in order to get away from the Civil War a bit, I’m editing the second volume of a Missouri soldier’s memoirs from the World War I period.  

DW: I've always thought that Fremont's time in Missouri was one of the most neglected and interesting periods of the war in the Trans-Mississippi. That would make for a great book length project. Thanks for your time, Jeff!  

JP: Thank you, Drew. Thanks for the opportunity to visit with you and your readers. I look forward to meeting them at Wilson’s Creek.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting interview! Although I've read a lot about Wilson's Creek, I'll probably pick up your book anyway, especially for Boonville, a battle that's always fascinated me.

    I second the motion for a Fremont book. The Missouri Historical Review published an article on him, by a descendant if I remember correctly. Its thesis was that considering just how much Fremont had to contend with and how little funding he had, he was almost doomed to failure. His policy towards slaveowners didn't endear him to the politicians, either.

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