Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Wood: "CIVIL WAR SPRINGFIELD"

[ Civil War Springfield by Larry Wood (The History Press, 2011).  Softcover, maps, photos, drawings, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:144/156.  ISBN:978-1-60949-308-0   $19.99]

Though small in population, the Ozark town of Springfield was arguably the most important strategic point in southwest Missouri during the Civil War years. A few minor works have been published, but Larry Wood's Civil War Springfield is the first full length examination of the town's physical sufferings and importance as a base of operations for both sides.

At the beginning of the war, home guard companies were raised in Springfield to defend the town from secessionist threats and assist the approaching Union army of General Nathaniel Lyon. By mid-July, Lyon had consolidated the commands of Franz Sigel, Thomas Sweeny, and Samuel Sturgis in camps around Springfield.  In August, the town became a hospital for the wounded from Wilson's Creek. With Lyon dead and their army defeated, the federals withdrew, leaving Springfield open to the Confederates, who entered the streets of the town on the 11th. Two months later, the advance of a massive Union army, commanded by John C. Fremont and bent on evicting the Missouri State Guard and their Confederate allies from the state, recaptured the town. However, the Union army was soon broken up, its divisions distributed elsewhere, and Sterling Price's Missouri command reentered an abandoned Springfield and set up winter camps. This situation did not last either, as the Missourians were forced out for good by Samuel Curtis's Union Army of the Southwest in February 1862. Though Springfield did not change hands as many times as Winchester, Virginia, property losses were significant.

The two most prominent military events associated with Springfield, Zagonyi's Charge (October 25, 1861) and the Battle of Springfield (January 8, 1863), are ably described in the text. In fact, Wood's map and narrative account of the clash between Zagonyi's battalion-sized advance force and the defending Missouri State Guardsmen arguably affords the clearest understanding yet of what occurred in that enclosed field outside Springfield. Though naturally not as rich in minutiae as Frederick Goman's book length history, Wood's overview of the Battle of Springfield [sometimes called the Second Battle of Springfield, "Zagonyi's Charge" being the first] is satisfactorily detailed for a general work of this scope.

While a full rendering of the social makeup of the town is not offered in Civil War Springfield, Wood makes it clear to readers that the population boasted a substantial pro-Union majority.  Profiles of several prominent members of the community are included, their trials and tribulations traced throughout the war years.  A point well worthy of further development involved local political party alignment.  Springfield underwent a radical political transformation during the war, from Lincoln polling a distant last in the 1860 election to a landslide victory for the Republicans in 1864.  The author posits several plausible explanations for this, from the gradual driving out of secessionists to economic self-interest (under Union occupation, the town generally prospered in the second half of the war). Short chapters at the end of the book cover the war's aftermath and how the community commemorated the conflict.

My only problem with Civil War Springfield was Wood's decision to forgo footnotes. The bibliography, which contains a number of manuscript collections and obscure published sources, indicates diligent research was done, but documenting the text itself would have been helpful. Even with this flaw, the book is easily the best available history of Springfield's Civil War.

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