Thursday, February 11, 2010

Beck: "THE BATTLE OF OKOLONA: Defending the Mississippi Prairie"

[The Battle of Okolona: Defending the Mississippi Prairie by Brandon H. Beck (The History Press, 2009). Softcover, 2 maps, photos, tours, notes, bibliography. Pages main/total: 71/112. ISBN:9781596297784 $19.99]

Author Brandon Beck is best known to Civil War students for his Shenandoah Valley military studies, but his new book The Battle of Okolona takes readers to the conflict's western theater and the fertile lands of northern Mississippi. Although the Confederate army guarded the area (mainly with cavalry) throughout the war, the Mississippi prairie remains one of the more obscure southern breadbasket regions in the Civil War literature. However, during the February 1864 Meridian Campaign, clashes on the prairie were front and center as the northern wing of Major General William T. Sherman's two-pronged operation (7,000 cavalrymen under Brigadier General William Sooy Smith) met a much smaller Confederate mounted force under General Nathan Bedford Forrest and was turned back from uniting with Sherman at or near Meridian, Mississippi.

Beck's military study is brief (71 pages of narrative), but it is a fully documented treatment centering on the series of running battles fought between Smith's and Forrest's commands during the period February 21-22. In short, Smith met Forrest's vanguard at Ellis's Bridge on the 21st, and, timidly fearing for his flanks and rear, withdrew north up the Mobile & Ohio Railroad, standing briefly at Okolona on the 22nd before continuing his retreat across the border to Collierville, Tennessee. Two maps are included in the book, an area map of northeastern Mississippi and a smaller scale drawing detailing the course of Smith's dozen or so mile retreat route between West Point and Pontotoc. Maps depicting terrain and troop dispositions at sites such as Ellis's Bridge and Okolona are absent, and readers should not expect from this short overview to find a micro-tactical history and analysis of these battles.

Substantial space is devoted to background material and a discussion of the campaign's aftermath. Although something of a Grant favorite, the campaign exposed the often physically incapacitated Smith as a timid leader unsuited to independent, and especially cavalry, command. Outlined in the text are Smith's later attempts to paint his part in the Meridian Campaign as a military success as well as a devastating economic blow to the Confederacy, both of which strike the objective reader as weak and unsubstantiated.

Three tours [I- downtown Okolona, II- retreat and pursuit route, III- a loop from Okolona to Egypt, West Point, Columbus and back], supplemented with fine photographs of sites and stops along the way, are included. There's no modern map tracing the route, but the directions, given in mile-tenths, do not appear to be difficult to follow. Even though demanding readers will have wished the author delved into more tactical detail, given the subject's relative scarcity of coverage in the literature, The Battle of Okolona can be widely recommended to western theater cavalry students.

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