Monday, October 19, 2009

Interview with Dr. William L. Shea, Part One

Soon after it was published in 1992, I read Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West, an excellent campaign history co-authored by William L. Shea and Earl J. Hess. Two years ago, I heard that Dr. Shea, a professor at the University of Arkansas at Monticello, was writing a study of the Prairie Grove campaign, and I have been eagerly awaiting its publication ever since. Later this month, the University of North Carolina Press will be releasing Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign as part of the Civil War America series. Several weeks ago, I contacted Professor Shea and asked him if he would preview his book for this blog. He graciously agreed and what follows is part one of a question and answer session with Professor Shea. His book may be ordered through the website or directly from the University of North Carolina Press. Please see my October 21st posting for the conclusion of the interview. In the conclusion, Dr. Shea has some thought provoking comments about Major General Thomas Hindman's leadership as well as additional remarks about the campaign.

How did you become interested in researching and writing about the Civil War in the Trans-Mississippi?

Professor Shea: While in college and graduate school I had the good fortune to enroll in Civil War courses taught by Harry Williams and Frank Vandiver, both of whom were excellent storytellers. But because of the anti-military sentiment poisoning higher education after the Vietnam War, I thought it best to focus on something other than military history proper. So I cranked out a dissertation on warfare in early Virginia cleverly disguised as a study of paramilitary institutions. A short version was published a few years later as The Virginia Militia in the Seventeenth Century (LSU Press, 1983). This little gem has been out of print for a decade but several copies are still available for discerning collectors.

Shortly after arriving at UAM, where I taught (and still teach) the course on colonial America, I was asked to pick up the course on the Civil War and Reconstruction. I agreed but soon discovered that there was nothing on Arkansas for the students (and the instructor) to read. So one day I decided to write such a book myself. After many adventures and the acquisition of a talented and diligent co-author, the book was done. Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West (UNC Press, 1992) came out in the immediate afterglow of Ken Burns' PBS documentary and drew more attention to the Trans-Mississippi than any previous publication. It was not the book I had intended to write but somewhere along the way I realized that I really enjoyed campaigning in the Trans-Mississippi. The rest, as they say, is history.

Why does the Prairie Grove campaign deserve a full-length book?

Professor Shea: Would anyone ask that question about a campaign in Virginia or Georgia? Probably not. So let me ask a couple of questions of my own. Why is the Civil War west of the Mississippi River still accorded so little respect? And why are historians expected to justify their interest in that subject? We have been conditioned for so long to think of the Trans-Mississippi as a sideshow that we now have a hard time recognizing it for what it was: an integral part of the larger struggle, sometimes marginal, often significant, and always fascinating. What really surprises me, however, is how some historians dismiss the human dimension of the Civil War in the west. It seems obvious to me that dedication, courage, fear, and suffering knew no regional boundaries.

It is true that the Prairie Grove campaign (like the Wilson's Creek and Pea Ridge campaigns before it) involved relatively smallish numbers of troops, but the stakes were enormous. Control of Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, and the Indian Territory depended on the outcome. That makes it bookworthy in my estimation.

What time period does your book cover? Why did you choose that time period?

Professor Shea: The battle took place on Sunday, December 7, 1862, an easy date to remember, at least for people of a certain age. But in order to make certain that readers understood what was going on, I had to keep "backing up" and adding more and more background information. I finally decided to start the story in the summer of 1862 when Thomas Hindman arrived in Arkansas, and end it when he left nine months later. Fully half of the book is taken up with setting the stage, introducing major characters, and describing the complex maneuvers both armies carried out before and after the clash at Prairie Grove.

Geography turned out to be as troublesome as chronology. Few Civil War enthusiasts are familiar with the vast distances and complicated terrain of the Trans-Mississippi. (And even fewer know the difference between a "hollow" and a "bottom.") So in the book I spend a good deal of time explaining where Points A and B are located and how difficult it was to get from one to the other, especially in the dead of winter. Campaigning atop the Ozark Plateau in 1862 was no walk in the park, and readers have to be reminded of that in this age of interstate highways.

Were there any Union or Confederate officers that performed particularly well during the campaign? What was so striking about their actions?

Professor Shea: I would have to say that Union officers outperformed their Confederate counterparts at all levels. The only notable exception was Francis Herron. He had never commanded anything larger than a regiment in battle before Prairie Grove, and his lack of experience was evident in his mismanagement of the opening stages of the fight.

Were there any Union or Confederate officers that performed particularly poorly during the campaign? What was so poor about their performance?

Professor Shea: Hindman lacked a military background so he did the smart thing (or so it seemed at the time) and allowed his three division commanders to handle tactical matters at Prairie Grove. John Marmaduke, Francis Shoup, and Daniel Frost were West Pointers with years of experience in the regular army. Much was expected of them but they fumbled away every Confederate advantage. I suspect Hindman would have done far better had he run the show himself.

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