Thursday, January 10, 2013

Burchett: "THE BATTLE OF CARTHAGE, MISSOURI: First Trans-Mississippi Conflict of the Civil War"

[The Battle of Carthage, Missouri: First Trans-Mississippi Conflict of the Civil War by Kenneth E. Burchett (McFarland 800-253-2187, 2012) Softcover, 2 maps, photos, illustration, notes, appendix, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:194/240. ISBN:978-0-7864-6959-8 $35]


The July 5, 1861 Battle of Carthage in Jasper County was the product of a reckless (in hindsight) attempt by Colonel Franz Sigel and his pair of understrength ethnic German Union regiments to intercept the bulk of pro-secessionist Governor Claiborne Jackson's retreating Missouri State Guard forces, the latter seeking succor in southwest Missouri, where Confederate, Arkansas, and other Missouri state forces were assembling. Kenneth Burchett's The Battle of Carthage, Missouri: First Trans-Mississippi Conflict of the Civil War is the second full length history of this early war clash to appear.

On that July day in 1861 ten miles north of the town of Carthage, Sigel's brigade encountered the Guard's mile-long battle line (infantry in the middle, cavalry on the flanks) atop a gentle slope between Dry Fork and Double Trouble creeks. A brisk artillery exchange erupted between Sigel's eight guns and a pair of MSG batteries. With enemy cavalry overlapping both ends of the shorter Union line and no mounted men of his own, Sigel broke off the engagement and retreated. A running fight back to Carthage ensued, with both sides negotiating difficult crossings of two creeks and the Spring River before arriving at the town itself. Missouri State Guard forces, disorganized by the pursuit, hit the Union defenders at Carthage from three sides in a final effort, but none of their attacks were coordinated enough to seriously threaten Sigel's escape southeast to Sarcoxie.

An excellent military history of Carthage already exists in David Hinze and Karen Farnham's The Battle of Carthage: Border War in Southwest Missouri, July 5, 1861 (Savas Publishing, 1997). Burchett's The Battle of Carthage, Missouri, does not disagree with Hinze and Farnham on major points and is roughly the equal of their work in terms of tactical detail, but it also exceeds the scope of the earlier study in several important ways. Instead of providing yet another extensive summary of events in Missouri between the secession crisis and the Battle of Boonville, Burchett wisely chose to concentrate his background material on southwest Missouri, where the author's recounting of the interactions of civilians with Sigel's column highlight well the political divisions in the region. Some towns were dominated by one side or the other, while others were evenly divided, with opposing militias camped a short distance away. A brief chapter discusses slavery in Jasper County. Additionally, Burchett's scholarship is more balanced than that of Hinze and Farnham, who focused more on the officers and men of the MSG. Burchett's minute attention paid to unit positions, and their spatial relationship to nearby friendly and enemy units, in combination with perhaps the literature's best description of the battlefield terrain, goes some way toward making up for the book's lack of maps.

On paper, the battle might easily have ended with the annihilation or surrender of Sigel's command, but it wasn't really that close. As Burchett clearly shows, excellent handling of the Union artillery and terrain restrictions (several lines of thickly wooded stream beds and a river perpendicular to the main road) together conspired to negate the massive MSG advantage in mounted troops. The differences in arms and training were also significant. While only the flank companies of Sigel's regiments had rifles, all of the men were armed with military grade weapons, while the MSG was indifferently equipped with mostly civilian firearms brought from home. The guardsmen were also hastily organized on the march and couldn't match the Germans's time in drilling and training.

Who commanded the Missouri State Guard at Carthage is a long standing controversy, and it appears Burchett was unable to uncover new information on this front. Governor Jackson was not on the field, and there's no conclusive evidence that General James S. Rains was formally appointed to the post. Nevertheless, MSG coordination among its divisions was rather good given the lack of overall guidance and the haphazard organization of the units. Numbers and losses are another source of conflicting opinion. Accurate determinations are probably impossible, but the author does a nice job of presenting all the competing arguments. For the MSG, he accepts estimates of 4000 armed and 2000 unarmed men, opposed by Sigel's 1350 Germans (including the artillerymen). In terms of casualties, an appendix gathers together the wildly variable claims made over the years, but is unable to come up with any firm conclusions.

My only serious complaint with the book was the baffling decision to include not a single map depicting troop positions. Hinze and Farnham recognized the importance of this, and accordingly filled their study with fine examples, but Burchett dropped the ball badly in this regard. One thing that does help at least to understand the terrain is the inclusion of a nice full page reproduction, previously unpublished, of the map that accompanied General Sweeny's Carthage report [Sweeny himself wasn't present, but he was Sigel's superior. The map itself was the template for the one included in the atlas to the O.R.]. It is the best source I've seen of the road network radiating out from Carthage, as well as the wood and creek lines that had such a significant impact on the battle.

However, in no way should the lack of maps be regarded as a disqualifying factor in appraising the ultimate value of the book. The Battle of Carthage, Missouri does not replace Hinze and Farnham as much as it adds layers to our understanding of the battle and the societal and political climate of the region where it was fought. Each has its strengths, and readers interested in the subject would unquestionably benefit from owning both. Missouri Civil War battle histories appear only infrequently, and this is a good one, heartily recommended to serious students of the conflict's first year in the Trans-Mississippi theater.

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