Saturday, October 31, 2009

How Peculiar

What a week! For tonight, I'll just do another mini-posting. In a few earlier postings, I mentioned that my dissertation and then my first book was about a Trans-Mississippi regiment, the 28th Texas Cavalry (dismounted).

“A position in this regiment will be one of peculiar honor.” So stated the Texas Republican on 15 March 1862 as the 28th Texas Cavalry was being organized. The writer was not stating that the honor was weird or odd. The word “peculiar” had a somewhat different meaning in the mid-nineteenth century and meant special or distinctive.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Camp Pope Bookshop Sale!

Recently I learned that there is a liquidation sale occurring right now at the Camp Pope Bookshop. This is a book store that concentrates for the most part on works relating to the Trans-Mississippi. New books are being sold at half price with the exception of books published by Camp Pope. Last week I ordered four brand new books from there at half price and received them today--what a deal!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"...Hindman was the most successful of all Confederate generals."

As promised, here is the conclusion of the question and answer session with Dr. William L. Shea. His forthcoming book Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign may be ordered from or the University of North Carolina Press. I have found his comments to be stimulating and thought provoking, and I’m looking forward to reading your reactions to his comments. A tip of the hat and a multi-gun salute to Professor Shea for sharing his ideas!!

Were there any unique features to the campaign?

Professor Shea: Where do I start? The entire operation, from start to finish, is absolutely fascinating. Hindman appointed himself military governor, created an army from scratch, and set out to liberate Missouri. And he very nearly succeeded. It was the most remarkable turnaround in the Civil War. By any objective standard Hindman was the most successful of all Confederate generals. All ultimately failed, of course, but no one else did so much with so little and came so close to achieving a major strategic victory.

Your comment that "Hindman was the most successful of all Confederate generals" will certainly draw some attention! Please explain in more detail why you think he was so successful.

Professor Shea: As Rush Limbaugh continues to demonstrate on a daily basis, provocative statements draw a lot of attention. In the case of Hindman, however, it is not my intention to be provocative or outrageous or anything of that sort. I mean exactly what I say. The pantheon of Confederate generals is the product of narrow thinking and Lost Cause nonsense—the saintly Lee, the martyred Jackson, the dashing Stuart, the doomed Cleburne, and so on. Note that the only thing these people did was command troops in combat, and that is a very narrow definition of a successful general. Lee, for example, was a capable tactician but a mediocre administrator. And so on down the line. Hindman wore more hats than any other Confederate general and his accomplishments, given the circumstances and limitations under which he operated, were truly remarkable. No one else came close in my estimation. He deserves far more respect, admiration even, than he has received, and I hope the Prairie Grove book will help to set things right.

Sad to say, the study of Confederate military history is still hampered by an almost complete failure to think outside the box. Slowly but steadily, Civil War historians have begun to reassess Union generalship, but the subject of Confederate generalship remains sacrosanct, frozen in time, a romanticized product of the Victorian era. If my unorthodox (some will say heretical) take on Hindman jogs the process of reassessment along, good.

Does your interpretation of the significance of the campaign differ significantly from any prior studies? If so, how?

Professor Shea: So little has been done on the Trans-Mississippi that it is still essentially "virgin soil" for historians. Because my book is the first scholarly account of the campaign I expect it will serve as the "standard" until something better comes along, which will inevitably happen, of course.

What research challenges did you face?

Professor Shea: When Earl Hess and I began our research on Pea Ridge ages ago, we were warned that it was impossible to do a book-length study of anything on the Trans-Mississippi because of a lack of documentary material. We also were advised not to bother because the Trans-Mississippi was a backwater of no significance. But we were heedless youths and pressed ahead undeterred. Over the next few years we found hundreds of manuscript collections scattered across dozens of states. We ended up with far more material than we could possibly use.

So it was with Prairie Grove. I came across letters, diaries, and official documents everywhere I looked. I cannot recall ever storming into an archive and not coming out with a pile of photocopies or notes. The biggest haul came from New York City, of all places. The headquarters papers of the Confederate District of Arkansas have been hiding in plain sight at Columbia University for nearly a century. Even more remarkable, many of the "missing" Confederate division, brigade, and regimental reports from the battle were resting in the New York Historical Society, only a few blocks away. What this trove of Confederate documents was doing in "enemy hands" is a story in itself, but a definitive history of the Prairie Grove campaign could not have been written without it.

If my experience is any guide, there is enough material "out there" to support research into nearly every aspect of the Civil War in the Trans-Mississippi.

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.

Friday, October 16, 2009

An Excellent First Hand Account

Recently I read Marching With The First Nebraska: A Civil War Diary co-edited by James E. Potter and Edith Robbins and published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2007. It’s a shame that this book does not seem to have been widely reviewed because it is a gem. The book provides an edited (and translated) version of a diary written by August Scherneckau, a German immigrant who migrated to the Nebraska Territory in 1858. Scherneckau enlisted in the fall of 1862, and served until mustering out in October 1865. His diary (plus a few letters) does not feature any “battle” accounts, but what it does have is a wealth of Scherneckau's well-written entries about the countryside, guard duty, civilians, behavior (mostly bad) by his fellow soldiers, foraging, scouting, and skirmishing. St. Louis, southeastern Missouri and northeastern Arkansas were the primary venues of Scherneckau’s war with a finale in the Nebraska Territory. This well-edited book is for readers who are ready for something a bit different; this is not a guns and bugles kind of book but a gritty look at soldiering mostly behind the lines.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Some Soldiers from East Texas

I had planned to devote a short series to a discussion of the presentations given at the Beyond Campaigns and Commanders symposium sponsored by the Civil War Round Table of the Ozarks. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the symposium due to an ill-timed sickness. For several weeks I had looked forward to hearing the presentations and examining the books at the vendor tables. Instead, I spent the weekend reading and watching movies. And because I have no symposium news, I'll devote some attention to an older research project of mine.

My dissertation was a study of the 28th Texas Cavalry. Fortunately, I enjoyed researching the history of these east Texas soldiers; wouldn’t it be dreary to spend years researching a boring topic? After I graduated from the University of North Texas with my Ph.D., I revised the dissertation and it was published as Peculiar Honor: A History of the 28th Texas Cavalry, 1862-1865 by the University of Arkansas Press. (By the way, I noticed on that they misspelled "cavalry" as "calvary"--annoying). Below is a map from the book that was drawn by Richard J. Thompson, Jr. and Donald S. Frazier showing the counties of origin for the 28th Texas Cavalry.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Another Bit of Postal History

It is a stormy night in northeastern Oklahoma, but here is a quick posting before I turn the computer off. Last month, I featured a “turned cover” used by Theophilus and Harriet Perry during the war. Not long after that posting, I discovered that Confederate philatelist Dr. John Kimbrough had yet another cover used in the correspondence. The temptation was too strong, and I purchased it also. Here is an envelope used by Theophilus and postmarked Henderson, Texas (clicking on the image should enlarge it):

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

In Praise of Local Historians

Recently, I have given thought again to the importance of newspapers in researching the Civil War in the Trans-Mississippi. This jogged my memory about a person that I met last year. In May 2008 I had the great pleasure of bicycling the entire length of the Katy Trail State Park in Missouri—all 225 miles of it from Clinton to St. Charles, Missouri. Much of the ride was along the Missouri River. On the eve of the war this part of Missouri had a high concentration of slaves and the secession movement was quite popular. On my bike ride I met a number of interesting people including Augusta’s town historian, Dr. Anita M. Mallinckrodt. Augusta, a German community just a few miles from St. Charles, was a river town during the war and Unionist in its sympathies. In a labor of love, Dr. Mallinckrodt has read the German language newspaper, the St. Charles Democrat, and translated excerpts into English that deal with Augusta, the surrounding area, and important events of the time period. She has assembled approximately three volumes (each one covering a different time period) of excerpts from the St. Charles Democrat. The volume covering the Civil War era features newspaper articles about the St. Charles County Union Guard, military events in the area, elections, agriculture, emancipation, prices, runaway slaves, and Reconstruction. There are certainly many local historians in the Trans-Mississippi; it seems as though every community, no matter its size, has a town historian. Unfortunately it can be a bit difficult sometimes to even know about their work. Still the wealth of data collected and often published by local historians is remarkable—as a professional historian I admire their dedication to their labors of love.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Visit to Wilson's Creek National Battlefield

Earlier in the month, I spoke at a meeting of the Civil War Round Table of the Ozarks in Springfield, Missouri. My talk was a biographical one that focused on Brigadier General Daniel W. Adams, the first commander of the Adams-Gibson Louisiana brigade that served in the Army of Tennessee. “Old Pelican” was an interesting character, and I enjoyed researching his life story. The audience of about 50 was quite attentive; there are many fine folks in the CWRT of the Ozarks, and I encourage you to attend one of their monthly meetings.

While on my way home the next day I stopped by the Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield for a short visit. It was a gloomy, drizzly day, but I couldn’t miss the opportunity of visiting one of my favorite battlefields! I hope that you enjoy this mini tour.

Although not the best day for photography, I snapped a few shots.The park service has placed a cannon near the site of the Pulaski Battery's position, and this photograph shows the markings of the manufacturer. Many of the cannon barrels at the battlefields administered by the National Park Service do date from the Civil War as does this one. All of these images may be enlarged by clicking on them.

The Pulaski Battery, a Confederate unit from Little Rock, Arkansas, bombarded part of Bloody Hill; interestingly one of the Union batteries stationed on Bloody Hill was commanded by Captain James Totten who in the antebellum period had been stationed in Little Rock and gave the Pulaski Battery some instruction. The armies spent several hours contending for control of the hill with Confederate forces seizing it when the Unionists started retreating back to Springfield.

The wildflowers were in bloom and these were taken near the Ray House.

This photograph shows the Edwards Cabin situated near the Wire Road and used as a headquarters by Sterling Price, one of the Confederate commanders at the battle. This is not the original Edwards Cabin but a cabin dating from the 1850s that was moved into the park.

In this photo I have just crossed Wilson's Creek on the historic Wire Road and am walking along a park trail; in the distance is Bloody Hill.

A view from the slopes of Bloody Hill looking back toward the Edwards Cabin in the far distance near the middle of the photograph.