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.


  1. Wow! Columbia University and New York Historical Society! I would never have thought about looking there. This morning I've tried to tease collection descriptions out of their websites that might include Civil War Trans-Miss documents, but I'm not having any luck. Of course, archives are lagging far behind in getting their information online just because of the sheer volume of their holdings and the lack of money to hire sufficient staff. I'm looking forward to Fields of Blood anyway, but now especially so, so that I can pore over the bib for additional sources for the Trans-Mississippi in those unlikely places.

    Vicki Betts

  2. I found some of the stuff at NYHS--look in their catalog, not in the finding aids. Specifically--the Francis Jay Herron papers (he later practised law in New York City), the Maj.Genl. F. J. Herron private letter book (when he was on the Rio Grande in 1864), and a bound volume, 562 pages, of Official Reports of Battles. I found a couple of other interesting things dealing with Texas in the war that I'd like to check up on at some point, including making sure we have copies of letters from William Phoebus Lyon, a prisoner at Camp Ford, although "Camp Ford" is not mentioned in the notes.

    Vicki Betts

  3. I look forward to the book on Prairie Grove more than any book released this year.

    I am not surprised that Prof. Shea would present a different view of Hindman than that held by most folks. I can remember a seminar in Spring field, Missouri, when he made a less than laudatory assessment of JO Shelby, in front of a room full of Missourians! He made it out alive.

  4. Ive been to Pea Ridge and Prarie Grove 3 times. I alweays learn something new. Looking forward to the new book on Prarie Grove. Mr. Shea is a great hisdtorian. Are there any other books in the pipeline on the trans-mississippi dept? Thanks James McCorry

  5. That was outstanding -- thanks for arranging this Q&A. I visited Prairie Grove with Prof. Shea several years ago, and have been looking forward to this book ever since.