Saturday, March 22, 2014

Lee: "THE CIVIL WAR IN THE JACKSON PURCHASE, 1861 - 1862: The Pro-Confederate Struggle and Defeat in Southwest Kentucky"

[The Civil War in the Jackson Purchase, 1861-1862: The Pro-Confederate Struggle and Defeat in Southwest Kentucky by Dan Lee (McFarland ph. 800-253-2187, 2014). Pages main/total:212/256. ISBN:978-0-7864-7782-1 $39.95]

Acquired for the U.S. from the Chickasaw Indians by Andrew Jackson in 1818 and ratified by the senate the following year, the Jackson Purchase is a seven county region of western Kentucky enclosed by three major rivers: to the north by the Ohio, the west by the Mississippi, and on its eastern edge the Tennessee River. Of course, a number of histories documenting well known 1861-62 military clashes and campaigns that were fought along Purchase boundaries have been published, among them the substantial naval work of Myron Smith, the excellent Belmont and Columbus book by Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes, Forts Henry and Donelson studies by Benjamin Franklin Cooling and Kendall Gott, and a thorough treatment of the Island No. 10 campaign by Larry Daniel and Lynn Bock. In a new military-themed regional history, author Dan Lee discusses these same important events and more in The Civil War in the Jackson Purchase, 1861-1862: The Pro-Confederate Struggle and Defeat in Southwest Kentucky.

Not exhibiting any appreciable archival research, the narrative is primarily constructed from O.R. reports and published source materials of all types. Readers familiar with the works mentioned above will not be terribly surprised with how the bigger name campaigns are presented and interpreted by the author. That said, Lee does offer information about many lesser covered military sites and smaller scale fighting that occurred in the Purchase's interior. While his focus is on the first two years of the war, he does summarize a number of 1863-65 Confederate "incursions" into the region (with particular attention paid to Paducah) and there is some minor coverage of the guerrilla conflict. The harshness of Union military occupation, the most repressive district commander being the reviled General Eleazer Paine, is described in some detail, though one wishes for more primary source documentation supporting its most controversial claims. Lee also lists the various means developed by Union officers for keeping rear area pro-Confederate Purchase civilians in line. However, unlike with the collisions between armies, the author does not deal much in the way of specifics when it comes to the guerrilla war, a definite weakness in perspective given how much the irregular war impacted Kentucky soldiers and civilians.

For an essentially top down examination like this one, the level of military detail in Lee's narrative strikes the right balance, although the uninitiated reader would benefit immeasurably from more and better maps. Not surprisingly, General Grant is the book's most front and center Union army figure. Though no reader will agree with all of Lee's assessments, his views on the positives and negatives of Grant's personal character and military ability [these traits have been listed in countless books and need not be repeated here] is refreshingly complicated. The Grant that emerges from Lee's pen is one shaped by neither uncritically effusive praise nor overly petty, dated, and out of context criticism. As just one example, Lee covers both Grant's controversial 1862 order specifically expelling Jews from his district as well as his actions later in public life that could be interpreted as honest efforts toward making amends. As for other high ranking officers, no attempt is made to change traditional views on Gideon Pillow and John Pope, but the author reserves few negative comments toward how Leonidas Polk managed his affairs over the first twelve months of the war. Big questions that have provoked varied opinions over the past 150 years (ex. was occupying Columbus a blunder, who should receive most of the credit for conceiving the Henry-Donelson Campaign) are addressed in the book, with conclusions that won't surprise veteran readers.

While the content of Lee's book is mostly military in nature, the first twenty pages comprise an informative history of the settlement of the Purchase, its economic development (the number of slaves increased by 41% between 1850-60), its social and political leanings (it was heavily Southern Democrat in the 1860 election), and the reasons why it was coveted by both sides. A brief afterword also discusses Confederate commemoration in the Purchase and the role played by the UDC in promoting and shaping its public image. Some criticisms of the editing are in order. In addition to frequent typographical errors, the text also exhibits some strange quirks in terms of careless attention to detail [ex. Lee states that 4,000 slaves worked one of Polk's plantations and the City Class ironclads were covered in 13 1/2 inch plates when the dimensional context is clearly one of armor thickness, not individual plate width]. These kinds of distractions aside, The Civil War in the Jackson Purchase, 1861-1862 is a first of its kind and well constructed synthesis of the relevant published literature. Newer readers will benefit the most from the book, but there is enough lesser known content to make it more than worthwhile to the more experienced western theater student, too.

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