Sunday, December 09, 2012

Author Q & A: Kenneth E. Burchett

University of Central Arkansas professor Ken Burchett's The Battle of Carthage, Missouri: First Trans-Mississippi Conflict of the Civil War was released last week by McFarland. I don't have a copy yet, but, with my abiding interest in early Civil War Missouri, I've had my eye on it for a while.

DW: Hi Ken. You mentioned in our initial email exchange that this is your first Civil War book. What subject(s) do you teach at Central Arkansas and what got you interested in doing a book on an obscure Missouri battle like Carthage?

KB: I should have said that this is the first book I have published on the Civil War; one other manuscript is completed, a second well on the way and a third that covers American history from Jamestown to the Civil War. My first published book was on the subject of color, a subject more closely related to my academic field of art and humanities. When this question comes up—why is an art person interested in the Civil War—I always tell them that art is not about art; it is about life and the events that shape it and give it feeling. My interest in the Civil War probably precedes my interest in art and humanities as a field of study, and since the Battle of Carthage took place only a few miles from where I grew up in Missouri, it was a good subject to test my theory about art and life. I have always believed, too, that the qualities that go into making art are the same qualities for any of the arts whether art, music, architecture, or writing; the only difference is in the mechanics. One of the qualities of good writing, I think, is to be able to take the reader on a visual journey, to meet the characters, and come away feeling as if they were actually there as a part of something. As an artist, I feel I know how to do this; the mechanics of actually doing it is the challenge. I would not want to cultivate a misunderstanding about my ability to distinguish art from the Civil War. Nevertheless, my ideas about both perhaps do not flow from the expected definitions of each.

DW: Many readers interested in your book will already have read the only other serious study of the battle by David Hinze and Karen Farnham [The Battle of Carthage: Border War in Southwest Missouri, July 5, 1861 (Savas Publishing Co., 1997)]. How does your book differ in focus and scope?

KB: Hinze and Farnham is the best reporting of the events of the Battle of Carthage up to this point. In a well-researched account, the authors give a general background of the events that led up to the battle and go to some length to interpret the battlefield tactics of the opposing sides. The work focuses primarily on an analysis of the military history of the event to tell how the battle unfolded on the ground, to include a tourist section for anyone wanting to visit the battlefield. It has a few inaccuracies and some lapses in geography but overall is a good addition to Civil War literature. My book covers all the events in the Hinze book, plus more and in substantially more detail. The writing styles are very different. Hinze describes the events from a historian’s perspective; my book uses the individual experiences of the officers and soldiers on the ground to tell the stories and to take the reader inside the events. Hinze uses several modern photographs, diagrams, and maps to analyze the battle. I use only photographs, etchings, and maps of the vintage of the events portrayed. Another difference between the two books is in the voice of the writing. My book corrects a few oversights in the Hinze and Farnham account and goes into more detail to resolve some of the lingering issues surrounding the battle; e.g., the timeline of the rebel troop movements and a lengthy appraisal of casualties. Hinze and Farnham, VanGilder, and Schrantz each made their respective contributions to the understanding of the battle of Carthage. I am pleased to acknowledge each of them in my book.

DW: What reading audience do you foresee for The Battle of Carthage, Missouri?

KB: I wrote the book for readers from young adult upward. I would particularly like to see the book find its way into schools and colleges. The book is carefully researched, extensively footnoted, and hopefully will stand scholarly scrutiny; therefore, students of the Civil War may also find it of interest in their own work. Above all, the book tells a story, not unlike a novel inasmuch as there is a plot, interesting characters, and a made-to-order setting. The subject of the book is the battle of Carthage, but the book is about the men who fought the battle and the human consequences that the battle brought to one small community in southwest Missouri. To answer the question, though, I suppose I have to equivocate and say the book is for a general audience.

DW: Was there new source material associated with the Battle of Carthage that you uncovered that you would like to highlight for students of Civil War Missouri?

KB: Students of Civil War Missouri may not have previously seen some additions. (1) The book includes the only known photograph of General James S. Rains. (2) It publishes for the first time Brigadier General Sweeny’s battlefield map and letter describing the outcome of the battle for General Lyon. (3) A rare source discloses that Governor Jackson remained in command of Missouri State Guard forces, although not on the battlefield (heretofore, it was believed that General Rains as field commander led the rebel army into battle). The book publishes a rare photo of General Slack (the only known image of him) obtained from a copy of a glass negative taken by Mathew Brady. It also includes other original source materials that are included in the notes to the book and an extensive bibliography. One other document I will mention that was crucial to the description of the rebel batteries at the Battle of Carthage was the complete original inventory of arms taken by the rebels from the depot at Liberty, Missouri. This document helped to correct previous misinformation about the batteries. It is an important source because it also bears on the makeup of the batteries that the Missouri State Guard took into the Battle of Wilson’s Creek.

DW: With two books on the subject now available, do any particularly confounding mysteries remain?

KB: There will probably always be unsolved mysteries growing out of the battle of Carthage. One that I was not able to resolve to my own satisfaction concerns the very first contact between the two forces. Some argue that this occurred at the Carthage mills between rival squads of pickets, but the timeline of the battle does not appear to substantiate that. Another unresolved event, which I call the mystery of the Shoal Creek 200 in the book, is worthy of future investigation. When Colonel Franz Sigel began his retreat back across Dry Fork Creek, his men were concentrated at the ford and vulnerable to attack as they slowly tried to make the crossing. My research found reference to a large company of mounted men identified only as being from Shoal Creek who rode to the rescue of Sigel’s rear guard. I believe these men were part of a local home guard unit that had earlier joined Sigel. However, Sigel makes no mention of local soldiers in his after-action report, and further research did not identify the soldiers who were crucial to Sigel’s withdrawal. The last mystery I will mention concerns Sigel’s buried cannon. He supposedly buried two pieces in Spring River but no one has ever found them. There are many other stories that qualify as mysteries, especially concerning individual soldiers some of whom disappeared without a trace, and were never mentioned in any battle records. Whoever writes the next book on this battle, and on Wilson’s Creek that followed, should take a close look at the local men who comprised both sides of the conflict. There are many stories about the fight for Missouri that are yet untold.

DW: Did your foray into Civil War history whet your appetite for more? There’s certainly fertile scholarly ground remaining in your own general neck of the woods (e.g. Battle of Pine Bluff, Little Rock Campaign, etc.).

KB: Yes. The full story of the Trans-Mississippi history of the Civil War is a much longer story than has been written so far. While it is true that the war was won and lost in the great battles east of the Mississippi, what happened along the Kansas border and in the Border State of Missouri helped to shape what was to come later. If events west of the Mississippi had unfolded differently, it would likely have been a different war.

DW: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me about your book, Ken. I expect my copy to arrive any day now and the readers can expect a review soon.

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