Thursday, January 22, 2015

Schultz: "THE MARCH TO THE RIVER: From the Battle of Pea Ridge to Helena, Spring 1862"

[The March to the River: From the Battle of Pea Ridge to Helena, Spring 1862 by Robert G. Schultz (Camp Pope Publishing, 2014). Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:341/452. ISBN: 978-1-929919-60-4 $24.95]

The March to the River
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Union General Samuel R. Curtis's March 1862 victory at Pea Ridge in northwest Arkansas was an impressive feat of arms but it left his Army of the Southwest with only limited strategic options along the same line of operations. In a bold change of front, the army would march east over the sparsely populated wilds of the southern Ozark Plateau. Arriving at Batesville and Jacksonport, Arkansas after a month long journey, Curtis would be joined by reinforcements under Frederick Steele, whose own trip from Pilot Knob, Missouri was roughly equidistant but took twice as long.

Union hopes of capturing Little Rock were dashed by a combination of factors. Supply lines connecting to the Rolla and Pilot Knob railheads were overstretched and continually harassed by Confederate irregulars. The weather also took a turn for the worse with heavy rains swelling rivers and streams and transforming roads into muddy morasses. The operational pause also allowed the new Confederate district commander, General Thomas Hindman, to patch together enough Texas and Arkansas troops (mostly cavalry) to make any direct advance on Little Rock no longer certain of success.

A renewed offensive down the east bank of the White River led to a Union victory at Cache River. However, the advance terminated at Clarendon, and after close misses with naval reinforcements and supplies sent up the White, the Little Rock operation was abandoned and the army instead established a new base to the east at Helena. The history of this remarkable campaign stretching over 500 rugged miles is explored in Robert Schultz's The March to the River: From the Battle of Pea Ridge to Helena, Spring 1862.

The subject matter has been addressed in limited fashion in other books. The entire operation is briefly covered as part of Michael Banasik's Embattled Arkansas and a pair of studies — A Severe and Bloody Fight by Akridge & Powers and Chris Wehner's regimental history of the 11th Wisconsin — document several NE Arkansas episodes in excellent fashion, but Schultz's book is the first full treatment of the campaign from Pea Ridge to Helena. The author devotes chapters to each stage of the Union campaign, including the White River relief expeditions, but the Confederate perspective is not ignored. Schultz does not find to be exaggerated the conventional criticisms directed toward Earl Van Dorn for his ruthless stripping of Arkansas's men, arms, and war industry for service across the Mississippi. Hindman is credited for bringing a semblance of order to the situation but is criticized for encouraging a wider and looser application of the recently passed Partisan Ranger Act of 1862.

The March to the River is not a work of narrative history. There are certainly strong narrative sections and a general thread runs the entirely length of the book but much of the time the author is content to let these sources speak for themselves, with letters, sets of diary and journal entries, reports, newspaper articles and more transcribed in their entirety (all properly cited) and often several pages in length. Readers are not entirely left to their own devices for interpretation but being forced to navigate reams of first hand accounts with sometimes minimal authorial input can sometimes be frustrating. Maps are numerous. While none directly trace the route of the march, several area maps locate for the reader the major points of interest. Many topographic drawings of towns and environs encountered along the route are provided courtesy of engineer Lyman Bennett of the 36th Illinois. Details from archival maps of this type often do not survive the printing process but they are rendered crisply here.

In researching the volume, Schultz collected an impressive array of archival materials, government documents, newspaper articles, and a host of books, articles, online resources, theses, and dissertations. The quality of witness and participant accounts (both military and civilian) are really quite exceptional. One of the most interesting sources is General Curtis's campaign journal, a rare thing from a Civil War army commander. The appendix section also includes a useful collection of information, from a weather discussion to additional personal letters, official documents and orders.

No major battles were fought and the campaign ultimately failed in its object of capturing the Arkansas capital, but the author perceptively points to several reasons why the operation is deserving of modern appreciation and study. While Curtis was never entirely cut off from his Missouri bases, his operation comprised one of the earliest examples of the ability of a medium sized army to sustain itself deep in enemy territory, even in areas relatively poor in food and fodder. Incessant partisan and guerrilla attacks on supply trains and foraging parties were a shock to Curtis and his subordinates and a harbinger of what would become an increasingly serious problem for Union forces the deeper they penetrated enemy home territory. During an early war period more typically associated with cautious advances on the part of Union commanders, the march also marked Curtis as a man capable of bold, sweeping offensive maneuvers. His modern day supporters will forever debate whether the appointment of Curtis to primarily administrative commands for the rest of the war was a waste of his talents. The March to the River brings to the table the kind of serious attention that the post-Pea Ridge campaign in Arkansas has long needed and deserved.

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