Sunday, June 29, 2014

Perkins: "THE MOST BRILLIANT LITTLE VICTORY: Nelson's Eastern Kentucky Campaign of 1861"

[The Most Brilliant Little Victory: Nelson's Eastern Kentucky Campaign of 1861 by Marlitta H. Perkins (Eastern Kentucky Research & Publishing, 2014). Softcover, maps, photos, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:149/173. ISBN:978-1-312-11016-8 $25]

Very few authors have written extensively on the Civil War in East Kentucky. Until now, both of the region's most significant early war campaigns -- the fall 1861 Big Sandy River expedition of William "Bull" Nelson and James A. Garfield's winter offensive that followed it by mere weeks -- lack full studies. Coverage of their respective key battles, Ivy Mountain for Nelson and Garfield's Middle Creek, is similarly sparse. Thus, Marlitta Perkins's fine campaign history The Most Brilliant Little Victory: Nelson's Eastern Kentucky Campaign of 1861 helps bridge a rather large void in Kentucky Civil War historiography.

In September 1861, General Nelson assembled a new brigade of Ohio and Kentucky volunteer regiments in Maysville, Kentucky. Over the next two months, Nelson steadily cleared rebel forces from the far eastern part of the state, frequently dividing his command to cover a wider area and to threaten with capture the much smaller Confederate military presence in the region led by Colonel John S. Williams. On November 7, Nelson encountered a well conceived Confederate ambush at Ivy Mountain. The advancing Union forces recovered quickly, driving off the Confederates with relative ease, the latter's surprise and terrain advantages unable to offset fatal deficiencies in arms, artillery, numbers, and organization. Williams retreated to Pound Gap on the Kentucky-Virginia border but the victorious Union army did not follow up its success. Instead, Nelson quickly abandoned his army's hard won territorial gains, allowing the Confederates to return.

Perkins's narrative of the above series of events offers a thorough day-by-day account of a physically arduous campaign, one characterized by long marches punctuated by the occasional skirmish and one small battle. Belying the traditional understanding that a conciliatory policy was enforced during this period (especially in the ostensibly loyal Border States), civilian property was frequently targeted during the march. The author's research is more than solid, her archival findings skillfully integrated into the fully footnoted text. A subset of readers might wish for a more detailed terrain and tactical analysis for Ivy Mountain, but the main features of the battle are adequately presented. Perkins devotes a similar amount of space in the book to the withdrawal of Union forces from the region as she did to their advance. It is fine work and illustrates well the logistical shortcomings inherent to inexperienced armies moving back and forth over great distances.

The book is well illustrated, with numerous photographs of soldiers and civilians that figure prominently in the text. The study's set of operational scale maps, with the author superimposing march routes over a period map, are quite good, a key tool in tracing the expedition's progress through a geographical region alien to most Civil War readers. That said, an original Ivy Mountain tactical scale map was absent and really needed given the fight's complex terrain considerations and the near inscrutability of many of the features depicted in the reproduced archival drawing of the battlefield. The most noticeable problem with the book, however, is one common to nearly all self-published works, that of flawed presentation in the form of odd text formatting, typographical errors, misspelled/misused words, and the like. While these distractions can grate, the writing at its core is clear, well researched, and effectively organized.

Some rough edges aside, The Most Brilliant Little Victory is an excellent book length history, the first of its kind, of a military operation typically relegated to a footnote in other works and fought in a region largely neglected by Civil War scholarship. The ending may even hint at a follow up volume covering Garfield's expedition, which would be much welcomed given the quality of work demonstrated by Perkins.

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