Monday, October 22, 2007

Book Review - Wilson's Creek, Pea Ridge, and Prairie Grove

I recently had the privilege of receiving a review copy of:

Wilson’s Creek, Pea Ridge, & Prairie Grove: A Battlefield Guide with a Section on Wire Road. By Earl J. Hess, Richard W. Hatcher III, William Garrett Piston, and William L. Shea. University of Nebraska Press, 2006. i-xv, 282 Pp. Figures. Maps. Index. ISBN 0-8032-7366-5. $19.95

The following review was submitted to On Point: The Journal of Army History (Army Historical Foundation):

The battles of Wilson’s Creek, Pea Ridge, and Prairie Grove were among the most important fought west of the Mississippi River during the Civil War. The battles, which took place between mid-1861 and late 1862, played an important part in the Union’s vital goal to control the Mississippi Valley, which was necessary to its ultimate success. Though less famous than some of the more famous battles in the East, all three of the battles covered in this book were marked by fierce fighting, notable personalities, and interesting stories, including the role of Native American soldiers on both sides.

As national parks, the Wilson’s Creek and Pea Ridge battlefields are unique in that they encompass significant portions of the land on which fighting took place. This reviewer has visited the Wilson’s Creek battlefield several times and can attest to the luxury of visiting a battlefield relatively free from encroachment. Likewise, the Pea Ridge battlefield is dominated by “Big Mountain,” whose vistas provide a beautiful panorama of the park. As a state park, Prairie Grove encompasses less than a quarter of the original battlefield, but additional land acquisitions have been secured, thanks to federal, state, and private partnerships.

The series editors could hardly have done better in choosing the authors for this guide; as a group, the authors are expert historians who have produced some of the seminal works on Civil War’s Trans- Mississippi theater. Piston and Hatcher are co-authors of Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2002); Hess and Shea are co-authors of Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1992); Shea is currently preparing a detailed study of the Battle of Prairie Grove.

In its format, the book follows the style of other titles in the University of Nebraska’s “This Hallowed Ground” series of battlefield guides (including Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Shiloh, and the Seven Days), with sections on Directions, Orientation, What Happened, Analysis, and Vignettes. This volume also has about a half dozen “Optional Excursions” which take the reader on secondary tours. More than forty maps (excellent for their topographical detail) orient the reader to the layout of the parks themselves as well as the action that took place. A brief annotated bibliography provides ideas for reading in advance of a battlefield visit or for reflection on return.

The authors avoid the inherent danger of any compilation by aptly using the introductory “Overview’ sections to describe the historical threads that tie the three battles together. For example, Hess begins the chapter on Pea Ridge by first discussing military movements that took place after Wilson’s Creek, and Shea begins the chapter on Prairie Grove by discussing how the Confederates hoped to reverse the results of their disaster at Pea Ridge. They are also consistent in their assessment of leaders who participated in more than one of the battles (such as the oft-maligned Franz Sigel).

While a historical thread – including strategy and leaders – runs through the narrative of the three battles, so does an actual “thread”: the Wire Road (also known as the “Telegraph Road”). The road played an important role in the Missouri/Arkansas theater by bringing “the armies to the battlefields,” serving as a “readymade invasion route” for the Federals, and as an “avenue of concentration” for the defending Confederates (p. 229). The authors’ detailed driving tour of the road – from Springfield, Missouri, to Fort Smith, Arkansas – is a welcome and unique contribution to Civil War travel guides.

Overall, the authors aptly describe the historic action while making sense of the modern parks’ tour roads; this is no mean feat, as the roads do not always conform to the chronology of the battles. Still, there are a few areas for improvement. The Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove chapters are much lighter on analysis – the most useful part of the book – than the Wilson’s Creek chapter. The omission of the Springfield (Missouri) National Cemetery, even as an “optional excursion,” was very surprising. These are minor complaints and do not distract from this reviewer’s hearty recommendation of the book as a thorough and readable guide that will make any reader’s visit to these battlefields more enjoyable and interesting.

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