Sunday, July 15, 2012

Bennett: "THE BATTLE OF BRICE'S CROSSROADS"

[The Battle of Brice's Crossroads by Stewart L. Bennett (The History Press, 2012). Softcover, 4 maps, photos, notes, appendix, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:126/158. ISBN:978-1-60949-502-2 $21.99]

On a sweltering June day in 1864, Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry crushed a veteran Union force twice its size at Brice's Crossroads in northern Mississippi. The Federals, a cavalry division under General Benjamin Grierson and three brigades of infantry led by senior Colonel William McMillen, were committed piecemeal by commanding general Samuel Sturgis, the foot soldiers force marched in the heat to rescue the cavalry at the crossroads. The result was two distinct fights, with Forrest's mostly dismounted cavalry successively defeating both Grierson's initial line and the two brigades from McMillen's division sent to relieve the cavalry (Edward Bouton's USCT third brigade was posted in the rear guarding the trains). The retreat turned into something of a rout in the muddy bottoms northwest of the battlefield, but the pursuit was gradually checked by a cluster of regiments from McMillen's division. Nevertheless, up to sixteen guns and most of the trains were captured or destroyed.

Somewhat surprisingly, Stewart Bennett's The Battle of Brice's Crossroads is the first stand alone scholarly history of the campaign and battle to be published. There are now two major works covering the subject, this one and Ed Bearss's Forrest at Brice's Cross Roads and in North Mississippi in 1864* See Note. The author's summaries of Sturgis's first expedition and the mission of the second (to protect Sherman's lines of communication and supply by crippling Forrest's raiding capacity) set the stage well for the finely executed tactical account of the Battle of Brice's Crossroads that ensues. Bennett's detailed descriptions of the terrain involved, aided by an excellent collection of modern photographs of the sites, greatly enhance the reader's understanding of the difficulties involved in maneuvering to advantage in the area around the crossroads. The author's assessments of the broad stroke features of the battle and the leadership of both sides are conventional, but the narrative definitely has unique moments. For example, the role of the 9th Minnesota in anchoring the Union right center at a critical point during the battle is more fully explored here than in Bearss's earlier book.

Weaknesses are few. The maps do represent the terrain and positions of the regiments of both sides adequately, but they are too few in number. The battle was one of constantly shifting deployments (especially on the Union side) but only one map for each major phase of the battle -- the cavalry fight, the infantry fight, and the rear guard action at the Agnew House -- is provided. Typos and other little editing issues are also lightly scattered about.

The Battle of Brice's Crossroads is highly recommended reading. In addition to its well balanced and suitably detailed tactical account of the battle, the larger meaning of the deadly clash is fully appreciated. The human cost was far higher than it should have been, but Sturgis's failed expedition, along with A.J. Smith's subsequent one that defeated the Confederates at Tupelo, nevertheless contributed mightily to the preservation of the logistical network feeding Sherman's army in Georgia.

Note:
* - Ed Bearss's Forrest at Brice's Cross Roads and in North Mississippi in 1864 (Morningside, 1979) is a lengthy three part book, only the first section covering the campaign and battle of Brice's Crossroads. The total number of pages devoted to the subject are roughly similar between Bearss and Bennett, with Bearss offering slightly more background material d and Bennett arguably richer detail on the battle itself. Bearss's earlier classic is frequently referenced in Bennett's notes, but the latter's account is also heavily accented with manuscript material unavailable or unknown to Bearss. Overall, neither has a decisive edge over the other. Both should be regarded as essential reading.

3 comments:

  1. Will HickoxJuly 25, 2012

    Thanks for posting this review. I was able to see the battlefield on a steamy north Mississippi evening back in May, and have wanted to read a good scholarly account ever since. History Press titles seem to be very hit-or-miss, so it's good to know that this one is worthwhile.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Will,
      I also just noticed that Morningside reprinted the Bearss book this year. Doesn't look that there's any revision, though.

      Delete
  2. thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete

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