Thursday, May 14, 2015

Forsyth: "THE GREAT MISSOURI RAID: Sterling Price and the Last Major Confederate Campaign in Northern Territory"

[The Great Missouri Raid: Sterling Price and the Last Major Confederate Campaign in Northern Territory by Michael J. Forsyth (McFarland  800-253-2187, 2015). Softcover, maps, photos, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:243/289. ISBN:978-0-7864-7695-4 $39.95]

For a sweeping military operation nearly 1,500 miles in length and involving many violent collisions between opposing forces, including an impossible escape and the largest battle fought west of the Mississippi River, it seems almost inconceivable that no single volume campaign overview of scholarly value has been published before now. Michael Forsyth's The Great Missouri Raid finally addresses this gap in the Trans-Mississippi literature, offering sound analysis and useful summaries of events, strategies, and key figures involved.

Contingency and "lost opportunity" are strong themes in Forsyth's earlier works on the 1864 Red River Campaign and Camden Expedition but he readily admits that Price's Missouri operation was launched too late, led by the wrong man, and moved far too slowly to materially affect the course of the war. It seems to this reviewer difficult to argue that the political consequences of the campaign were anything but negligible or that the diversion of two XVI Corps infantry divisions from other fronts would have made much difference in western theater operations already characterized by overwhelming force disparity by the fall of 1864.  Forsyth has his doubts too but many writers continue to insist that the campaign prolonged the war by up to two months.

The leadership qualities affecting the planning and execution of military operations comprise another common thread in Forsyth's studies and he devotes close to half his narrative in The Great Missouri Raid to discussion of the ranking generals and command structures of each side. Though such extensive biographical information might not have been the best use of available space, the author's assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing high commands [generals Sterling Price, Jo Shelby, John S. Marmaduke, and James Fagan on the Confederate side and Union leaders William Rosecrans, Samuel Curtis, Thomas Ewing, Alfred Pleasonton, and James Blunt] and how these traits would manifest themselves in the ensuing campaign are thoughtfully presented.

At the time, Sterling Price might have seemed the safest political choice to lead the expedition but Forsyth argues persuasively that Price's overall debility, his demonstrated operational and battlefield incompetence, and his proven inability to enforce discipline should have disqualified the popular Missourian. On top of that, the same set of goals were never agreed upon by Price and department commander Edmund Kirby Smith. If invasion and conquest were intended, infantry would be required to hold territory but if raid, recruitment, and disruption were the goals to be reached then Price's army would have to travel light and fast. Instead, a ruinous middle course was taken. With an all-cavalry army that moved at the speed of infantry, Price conducted an infantry campaign with cavalry until Jefferson City was reached. Declining to test the state capital defenses, Price's invasion was then converted into a raid, albeit still a slow one and one additionally burdened by a growing baggage train. Weighing 300 lbs at this point in the war and confined to an ambulance, Price could never make use of his one great battlefield skill, his personal magnetism. Lacking a strong hand at its head, the Confederate army was defeated near the Kansas border at Westport and nearly destroyed during the long fighting retreat south. The author is also largely dismissive of Price's attempt at conducting compound warfare but there's actually some fairly persuasive evidence (for examples, see Guerrilla Warfare in Civil War Missouri, Volume III by Bruce Nichols) that Price dispatched many liaison officers to coordinate operations with guerrillas and disaffected militia elements in Missouri months in advance, with most of those efforts doomed by the raid's delayed launch.

For the Union side, Forsyth offers a convincing opinion that the divided command structure of the federal armies in the Trans-Mississippi theater was the key factor behind the Confederate army's escape. The author joins many other historians in condemning Missouri Department commander William Rosecrans's tardy response to the invasion. While some of these observers might not fully appreciate the difficulties of assembling and coordinating Missouri's widely scattered mixture of militia and regular defenders, it remains difficult to explain why Rosecrans failed to concentrate his forces at a later point in the game when it should have been apparent where Price was headed. In Forsyth's analysis, aggression in the pursuit of Price across Missouri is credited to newcomer Alfred Pleasonton. James Blunt is a another controversial figure among Civil War students but the author holds the general's ability and drive in high regard, reminding us once again of the need for a good Blunt biography. Forsyth's praise for Ewing is similarly unqualified. Unfortunately, neither of the two finest Pilot Knob studies, both of which raise worthwhile questions about Ewing's decision making, are listed in the bibliography (one perhaps too recently published to be considered).

Based as it is on the O.R. and other primary sources, Forsyth's recounting of military events, though relatively brief in the telling, is more than a synthesis. If not covered in much detail, the marches, skirmishes, and battles associated with the the operation are at least adequately described for the summary level purposes intended. The book's map set (five in all) could definitely stand for improvement but they do at least trace the general extent of Price's operation as well as convey some understanding of the three most important battles at Westport, Pilot Knob, and Mine Creek. Other noticeable flaws include frequent typos and a printing error in the endnotes section that left the notes incomplete for Chapter 11 and missing entirely from both the final chapter and appendices (the latter comprising a timeline of events and a useful collection of orders of battle).

The Great Missouri Raid's enduring place in the literature awaits the publication this summer of Kyle Sinisi's study and the second of Mark Lause's two-volume history of the 1864 Missouri campaign but for now at least it's the best treatment available.

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