Monday, November 24, 2014

Suderow & House: "THE BATTLE OF PILOT KNOB: Thunder in Arcadia Valley"

[The Battle of Pilot Knob: Thunder in Arcadia Valley by Bryce A. Suderow and R. Scott House (Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2014). Softcover, maps, photos, notes, appendices, bibliography. Pages main/total:390/418. ISBN:978-0-9903530-2-7 $20]

Bryce Suderow's Thunder in Arcadia Valley: Price's Defeat, September 27, 1864 (1986) was the first major study of the Battle of Pilot Knob to appear since the 1914 publication of Cyrus Peterson and Joseph Hanson's Pilot Knob: Thermopylae of the West. It certainly remains a serviceable account, but a newly released expanded edition (with co-author Scott House), one that roughly doubles the the page length of the original and incorporates new source material, photographs, and maps1, should raise its profile even more. Timed to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the battle and retitled The Battle of Pilot Knob: Thunder in Arcadia Valley, the new volume both augments Suderow's work and enhances coverage with large sections of completely original content [the second edition also compares favorably with another recently published full length study2].

The background setup in The Battle of Pilot Knob effectively goes all the way back to 1861, stressing the significant pull Missouri had upon Confederate military interests and planning in the Trans-Mississippi West, a large factor in this being that many of the best officers and units in the department were from that state (notwithstanding some comparatively mediocre senior Missouri generals like Sterling Price and John S. Marmaduke). The initial phase of the 1864 campaign, from Price's felicitously unopposed crossing of the Arkansas River through his army's largely unimpeded passage through southeast Missouri, is covered well.  The book demonstrates how the ineptitude and extreme caution of Frederick Steele, the senior federal officer in Arkansas, facilitated Confederate freedom of movement. Not only did Steele decline to take advantage of opportunities to intercept Price in Arkansas when the Confederates were most vulnerable, he failed to track enemy movements and provide Union forces in Missouri with timely reports of their progress.

The depth at which the Pilot Knob tactical narrative is presented should prove satisfactory to most readers. Suderow and House clearly outline the terrain considerations, command decisions, and troop movements most crucial to understanding the skirmishes and battles in Arcadia Valley — specifically the fighting at Shut-In Gap and Ironton on September 26, the Confederate approach to and abortive assault on Fort Davidson on the 27th, and the evacuation and escape of the Union garrison during the night. The updated volume is superior to prior studies in its integration of personal accounts from both military and civilian participants.

One might quibble with some of the command assessments. The authors present Price's battle plan as unqualified blunder but fail to provide an alternative strategy. Clearly Price was a weak practitioner of the operational art and one can certainly question whether he should have attacked at all given that surprise was lost, but his tactical plan for reducing the fort was pretty conventional by Civil War standards. Suderow and House strangely insist that a Confederate battery placed atop Shepherd Mountain could have spared southern blood by shelling the federals out of their earthworks when their own narrative notes the ease by which Union siege guns silenced all Confederate cannon deployed on those heights on the 27th. Ewing is also censured for dispatching small detachments outside the main defenses to develop enemy intentions, a perhaps overzealous criticism of a textbook practice (though much of the authors' condemnation seems to revolve around the late timing of their recall, a circumstance that led directly to the capture of Major Wilson).

The battle narrative is good, but one might argue that the treatment of Ewing's epic retreat to Leasburg is where the book shines brightest. Boosted by a late start from Marmaduke and an atypically dilatory Jo Shelby, the entire Union column from Ewing on down displayed a remarkable degree of coolness in safely traversing over 60 dangerous miles to safety with little in the way of lost men and equipment. An insightful explanation of how the topography along the route simultaneously aided foot-bound retreat and thwarted mounted pursuit is offered, as are solid reports on the handful of clashes that did occur along the way. A rough tracing of Ewing's final defensive position at Leasburg is made available as is some discussion of the light skirmishing that was as far as the Confederates were willing to go to test it. Apparently much of the ground along the historical pathway remains similar in appearance today and House's modern photographs of key places mentioned in the text are very helpful in visualizing the action.

Also included in the new edition are a large number of maps at both operational and tactical scales. Both types generally convey the information needed, but some readers might need a magnifying glass to make out some of the features. More supplementary material is present in the appendices, which contain Union and Confederate orders of battle, a casualty discussion, an annotated photographic reference of the battlefield, and an ordnance report for the fort.

There are some complaints. The quality of evidence behind the Confederate loss figure cited in the new edition of between two and three times the number indicated in Suderow's original study will not impress every reader (including this one) and some very useful reference material was excised (see note 1 below). Also, an index is missing and an unfortunate number of typos made it through the editing process.

As one of the most dramatic and important episodes of the 1864 Confederate campaign in Missouri, the Battle of Pilot Knob is certainly worthy of renewed attention. Significantly enhanced by the inclusion of entirely new chapters, enriched original material, and numerous maps and photographs, this new edition of a work long considered to be the standard treatment of the subject is a welcome update that should please both well informed students and a new generation of readers unfamiliar with the scarce and long out of print original.

1 - A detailed rundown of the differences between the editions is beyond the scope of this review. New material, which includes fresh military and civilian participant accounts, is inserted throughout the book, but the extensive coverage of the retreat from Pilot Knob to Leasburg in The Battle of Pilot Knob is a significant augmentation to the original edition, which ended with the evacuation of Fort Davidson. The new edition adds more appendices but curiously the expanded casualty discussion displaces Suderow's extensively documented unit strength tables. The authors seem to be at odds with each other when it comes to Confederate losses, with Suderow's figure estimated at just over 500 and House going with the much higher 1,100 to 1,500 range. Frankly, Suderow's conclusions in this regard seems the more credible of the two. The maps, greater in number and completely redone for the new edition, better address the campaign's operational movements (although the new tactical maps for the Ironton and Pilot Knob fighting do not demonstrate marked improvement over the originals). Suderow's often lengthy explanatory endnotes do not appear to have been preserved in their original form, but rather pared down or subdivided. I would strongly recommend that interested readers keep both editions.
2 - Coincident with the release of the Suderow-House edition was the publication of Douglas Gifford's Where Valor and Devotion Met: The Battle of Pilot Knob [review], another full treatment of the campaign and battle. I would rate Gifford's description and analysis of the Pilot Knob battle as the better of the two, but give Suderow-House the edge when it comes to overall campaign framework, incorporation of civilian (black and white) accounts into the narrative, and coverage of the Leasburg retreat. For the last, The Battle of Pilot Knob is preferred for its arguably richer terrain discussion (aided by House's evocative series of photographs) and more in depth treatment of the clashes at Huzzah Creek, Red Haw and Leasburg/Harrison Station itself.  As above, serious students would really benefit from owning both studies.


  1. Hi, are there any tactical maps that cover the rearguard actions during the retreat or of the Leasburg fight? Thanks.

    1. No, just locations of the actions along the path.

  2. Bummer, I wish that Blue and Gray Magazine would do more topics such as this(Trans-Miss. especially) with the kind of maps that they have been including with their articles. Some of these smaller, less well know events can have more of the drama about them and are great stories in their own right.

  3. Although not mentioned specifically in the review, Mr. House's description of the movement of the Army of Missouri from Pocahontas, Arkansas, on September 19 to their arrival in Fredericktown between September 23 and 24 is outstanding. He describes the movement of each division, including detachments, on a daily basis during that period. He also correctly notes that Marmaduke's Division did not actually pass through Fredericktown until the morning of September 26.


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