Dr. William L. Shea is a history professor at the University of Arkansas at Monticello and the author or co-author of numerous Civil War books* and articles, most related to the conflict in the Trans-Mississippi theater. He joins me to discuss a few things from his latest book Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign (UNC Press, 2009).
DW: Prof. Shea, since your earlier Pea Ridge study is a personal favorite, I’d like to start with a question about the co-author process. How did the partnership with Earl Hess develop? Also, how did you divide up the research and writing duties for that project?
WLS: We discovered by chance that we were both preparing books about Pea Ridge. Since neither project was very far along, we agreed to merge our efforts. Dividing up research responsibilities was easy. He searched archives in his half of the country; I searched archives in mine. Dividing up writing duties was more challenging. We settled on a process in which one author wrote a chapter (any chapter, no particular order) and sent it to the other author, who reworked the chapter and sent it back. Some chapters went back and forth several times before both of us were satisfied. The result was a manuscript with a consistent style from start to finish.
DW: Interesting. I've come across others that utilize a similar system, and it seems to work well in many cases. Let’s now dive into Prairie Grove and your new book Fields of Blood. You did an earlier interview with historian M. Jane Johansson [link to interview] that covered much of the background and research, as well as various leader assessments from both sides, so I thought I would avoid covering the same ground. I apologize beforehand for the scattershot format this will cause.
Fields of Blood is the second Prairie Grove Campaign study to be published, the first being Michael Banasik’s Embattled Arkansas (Broadfoot, 1996). Can you describe where your interpretations of the campaign and battle differ significantly from Banasik’s?
WLS: Our books are so different in conception and execution it's hard to make comparisons of that sort. We both give Hindman a lot of credit for creating an army from scratch.
DW: The controversial James Blunt is a major figure in your book. Although Nathaniel Lyon’s brief career secured Missouri more or less permanently, do you believe a case could be made that Blunt (with issues of politics and corruption aside) was the most effective Union military leader in the Trans-Mississippi?
WLS: Samuel Curtis was the most effective Union military leader west of the Mississippi, and he would have been even more effective had the Lincoln administration not put him on the shelf for most of 1863 and part of 1864 because of politically motivated trumped-up charges of corruption. Blunt was an effective leader of troops at the brigade and division levels but I doubt whether he had the capacity to handle an army or theater command. His combative personality made it difficult for him to get along with people, though he managed to stay on good terms with everyone except Salomon during the Prairie Grove campaign. But despite his flaws (or maybe because of them), he was a fascinating figure who deserves a first-rate biography. I hope somebody is considering such a project.
DW: Getting back to the Prairie Grove battlefield, the Confederate position along the ridge at Prairie Grove is fairly well documented, but others seem to remain a mystery. Did you ever come across a drawing or description of Frost’s blocking position astride the Fayetteville Road? Along with the earlier cavalry battle at the crossroads, it seems to be one of the fuzzier deployments in terms of available information.
WLS: I couldn't find any useful information about Frost's position along Muddy Fork. No maps, no sketches, no detailed descriptions. Nor could I find any obvious terrain features where a line of battle might have been located. It's a mystery. When I lead tours to that part of the battlefield I wave my arms vaguely and say that Frost was deployed "around here somewhere."
DW: It’s no secret that many of the Arkansas regiments were filled with large numbers of unwilling conscripts, and it’s even been alleged that an entire regiment deserted en masse during the Prairie Grove battle [unfortunately, I can’t remember which unit]. Did you find any evidence of this unique and incredible circumstance in your research?
WLS: That is one of the enduring myths of Prairie Grove. Charles Adams's Arkansas Infantry was one of the regiments with a large number of unhappy conscripts in its ranks. During the fighting around the Borden house the regiment disintegrated. Nearly everyone, officers included, fled to the rear. Many did not stop running until they were miles away. Over the next few days a large number of these men made their way to Union lines and turned themselves in. This appears to be the source of the incredible story that a Confederate regiment switched sides in the middle of the fight. Other Arkansas regiments with large numbers of conscripts performed well during the battle. Another regimental commander, Alexander Hawthorn, publicly commended his conscripts on their behavior in combat. The problem with Adams' regiment seems to have been Adams.
DW: That certainly wouldn't be unusual. In both your Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove studies, you represent those campaigns as pivotal moments in the yet undecided contest for control of Missouri, Arkansas, and Indian Territory, with the understanding that Confederate victories could have opened up vast strategic possibilities. In my mind, given the extreme logistical constraints, both battles (win or lose) better reflect the very limits of Confederate power projection in the region rather than possible starting points to even greater gains. What are your thoughts on this contrary view?
WLS: You're right. The Confederates had no realistic chance of occupying Missouri and Kansas in the usual sense of the term. But let's remember that the Union armies at Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove represented nearly all of the available manpower in the Trans-Mississippi. (This was especially true of the Army of the Frontier at Prairie Grove in late 1862.) Had either Union army been defeated and driven north in disarray—losing men, guns, ammunition, stores, wagons, and animals in the process—there was nothing to stop the Confederates from re-establishing themselves in the granary of western Missouri, which included "Little Dixie" and its hordes of irregulars. From there it would have been a relatively simple matter for the Confederates to seize the depots at Fort Scott and Rolla and continue on to threaten Kansas City and St. Louis. The presence of a rampaging Confederate army in western Missouri, however logistically challenged, would have been the military equivalent of a "fleet in being" (see Alfred Thayer Mahan). The Lincoln administration would have had no choice but to respond by rushing additional resources to Missouri and Kansas. This, in turn, would have affected the scale and scope of operations in Mississippi and Tennessee. I am convinced that a Confederate push into Missouri and Kansas in 1862, when the outcome of the war was still uncertain, would have had a significant impact not only in the Trans-Mississippi but across much of the West as well.
DW: It was long rumored that Banasik was working on a history of the Army of the Frontier and Bill Gurley is hard at work on a Parsons’ Brigade study. Do you know of any other individuals currently researching books about persons, places, or events directly and indirectly associated with the Prairie Grove Campaign?
WLS: News travels slowly in deepest Arkansas. I don't know of anything in the works.
DW: I like to close these Q&As with a question about upcoming projects. Do you have anything in the works that you are able to mention at this time?
WLS: A biography of Samuel Curtis is in progress.
DW: Wonderful. A scholarly full biography of the man has been absent for far too long. Perhaps we can chat about that one when the time comes. Thanks for your time.
* Other books by William L. Shea:
- Wilson's Creek, Pea Ridge, and Prairie Grove: A Battlefield Guide, with a Section on Wire Road w/ William G. Piston, Earl J. Hess, and Richard W. Hatcher III (Bison Books, 2006).
- Vicksburg Is the Key: The Struggle for the Mississippi River w/ Terry Winschel (U. of Nebraska Press, 2003).
- War in the West: Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove (McWhiney, 2002).
- Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West w/ Earl J. Hess (UNC Press, 1992).
- The Virginia Militia in the Seventeenth Century (LSU Press, 1983).