Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Skirmish With Important Results

I notice that sometimes scholars fall into the trap of the prodigious fallacy. Historian David Hackett Fischer wrote a wonderful book titled Historian’s Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1970) in which he documented with real-life examples dozens of fallacies from the pens of historians. As Fischer explained, the prodigious fallacy “…is the erroneous idea that a historian’s task is to describe portents and prodigies, and events marvelous, stupendous, fantastic, extraordinary, wonderful, superlative, astonishing, and monstrous—and further, that the more marvelous, stupendous, etc., an event is, the more historic and eventful it becomes. This absurd standard of significance is older than history itself” (70-71). Haven’t you noticed this fallacious standard applied in Civil War histories? Surely, the fact that an extraordinary number of casualties occurred at a battle means that the battle was extraordinarily significant! But, is that necessarily the case? I’m hoping that you’re thinking “No, that is not necessarily true.”

And so that leads us to the ranks of the 6th Kansas Cavalry as they are about to attack an enemy camp on 3 July 1862. “We struck the enemy just at dawn—some of the brightest stars were still shining” (233) reported Wiley Britton in his Memoirs of the Rebellion on the Border: 1863. This surprise attack on Colonel J. J. Clarkson’s Missouri soldiers near Locust Grove (Indian Territory) resulted in the capture of 110 Missourians and perhaps as many as 100 Confederates killed and wounded. Union casualties totaled three killed and six wounded. So here we have it—a low number of casualties and a small number of people involved must mean that it was an event of little importance. Or, maybe one of those that was only important to those who fought there. That last one always gets me because it is so confining. It implies that combat occurs in a vacuum and has no possible effect on any people other than those directly involved in the combat. Relatives of those who fall as casualties are thus quickly dismissed as are civilians in the geographical vicinity of the combat. Guess none of those folks really count. But, I digress…

The Union victory at Locust Grove sent a wave of consternation through the Cherokee Nation. The Nation had officially allied with the Confederacy, but in actuality the Nation was severely divided in its loyalties. The loyalty of Colonel John Drew’s Mounted Rifles was so undermined after the Locust Grove skirmish that 600 of its men defected to the Union; it was the only time during the war that virtually an entire regiment shifted to the opposing side. The collateral damage from the skirmish continued. Union forces advanced and entered Tahlequah, the capital of the Cherokee Nation, and then continued a short distance to Park Hill where Chief John Ross resided. Ross had never been enthused about the alliance with the Confederacy, and Union troops arrested him and then paroled him. He and several family members ended up leaving the Nation—all escorted by a detachment of the 6th Kansas Cavalry. Ross then went into virtual exile in Philadelphia. So, the moral of this little narrative: small military events do not necessarily lead to small outcomes.

For more information about the skirmish at Locust Grove and John Drew’s regiment see W. Craig Gaines’ interesting book, The Confederate Cherokees: John Drew’s Regiment of Mounted Rifles (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989).


  1. You make a good point. Drama is what sells history books and therefore drives history publishing. Look at the number of military histories as opposed to economic histories, when the latter actually affected more people on a day-to-day basis.

    Another significant skirmish was the first Battle of Boonville, when Lyon swept aside a much smaller rebel force and took control of the Missouri River. This permanently put Missouri Confederates on the back foot. This skirmish has gotten some of its due. I wonder how many other overlooked skirmishes had a disproportionate effect on the war?

  2. I intended to respond to your comment much sooner!! Things have been quite busy at work. Yes, the skirmish at Boonville was significant, and it does make you wonder how many others had an importance that really isn't evident in the length of the casualty list. Some historian could probably write a book about significant Civil War skirmishes!

    The war in the trans-Mississippi had a major impact on civilians, and yet their story does not seem to be emphasized as much as I think it should. The number of refugees in the trans-Mississippi was quite significant and, yet, their story is often overlooked.