Monday, April 08, 2013

"About Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon, U.S. Army Volunteers and Wilson's Creek"

Before I came across About Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon, U.S. Army Volunteers and Wilson's Creek by Hardy A. Kemp (Author, 1978) in a recent visit to my favorite local bookstore, I thought I was familiar with all the modern book length treatments of the campaign. No publisher or even a publishing date is mentioned in its pages, so the assumption is that it is self-published with the given date corresponding to the one attached to an author appreciation piece inside written by a Missouri state senator. Initially, as Hardy does not mention Bearss's work, I thought the manuscript was written much earlier, but the notes do cite works from the early to mid 1970s. Online used book outlets and bibliographical listings confirm the 1978 date so that's good enough for me, I guess.

As the title suggests, the book is a combination Lyon biography and examination of the general's role in the 1861 Missouri Campaign. The study does not go as far as Lyon biographer Christopher Phillips went in attempting to drill inside their subject's psyche, but Kemp does offer a portrait of Lyon's volatile personality using contemporary sources (salient among these the writings of Thomas Snead, James Peckham, and Drs. Ashbel Woodward and William Hammond).  The picture of Lyon that emerges is the fairly typical one of an officer with rigid beliefs in the areas of slavery, military duty, and federal supremacy, while at the same time unabashedly insubordinate and entirely intolerant of dissenting views.

Kemp also studies the ways that Lyon's West Point education and his experiences in the Mexican War and antebellum Far West Indian conflicts informed his Civil War generalship.  The most helpful professional development section deals with practical lessons learned from the Mexican War, although the author's criticism of Lyon's artillery deployments at Wilson's Creek as not indicative of best practices learned from that conflict is strikingly unpersuasive.  It's a small part of the book overall, but the discussion of Lyon's tactical and command failings at Wilson's Creek is where I found the study's freshest material and most trenchant analysis. Kemp favors comparison via excerpts from some translation of Jomini, but the principles cited are common sense observations of military history and practice more than anything else.

The choice of constructing the book as a hybrid of sequential thematic analysis with narrative makes it a structural mess, and better books exist in the arenas of Lyon biography and Wilson's Creek battle history, but there are more than enough thoughtful bits and pieces spread throughout Kemp's study to recommend it to those with a special interest in both subjects (if a copy can be found!).

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