Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Review of Roth - "J.O. SHELBY AT CLARENDON, ARKANSAS: The Capture and Destruction of the U.S.S. Queen City"

[General J. O. Shelby at Clarendon, Arkansas: The Capture and Destruction of the U.S.S. Queen City by Don Roth (Camp Pope Publishing, 2017). Softcover, 2 maps, photos, illustrations, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. 60 pp. ISBN:978-1-929919-77-2. $10]

Upon the costly but successful conclusion of the Camden Expedition (the Arkansas wing of the Red River Campaign) in spring 1864, the Confederate leadership in the Trans-Mississippi sent Joseph O. Shelby and his command behind enemy lines into NE Arkansas. There, the newly promoted General Shelby became in effect the sole Confederate military authority in the region, suppressing outlaws and guerrillas, vigorously enforcing conscription in anticipation of a fall expedition into Missouri, and conducting hit and run attacks on Union forces.

One of Shelby's most notable military achievements during this period was his brigade's surprise attack and destruction of the tinclad gunboat U.S.S. Queen City in June 1864. That dramatic event is the focus of Don Roth's book General J. O. Shelby at Clarendon, Arkansas: The Capture and Destruction of the U.S.S. Queen City. A slim volume of only 60 total pages, the study consists of a narrative history of the operation plus a number of brief appendices, among them a partial roster of Bledsoe's Battery (the unit that battered the vessel into submission), a sampling of artifacts taken from the wreck during a 1977 archeological survey, and a list of black sailors rescued from the sinking.

Also covered to satisfaction in the book is the Union response to the loss of the Queen City. Fearing the captured vessel's conversion into a Confederate gunboat, federal authorities quickly outfitted against Shelby a powerful naval flotilla accompanied by a full infantry division with a sizeable mounted detachment. Roth ably recounts the running engagement that ensued. Though Shelby and his field guns were overwhelmed by the Union Navy's weight of shot, the well-mounted Confederates were able to escape with relative ease. In the process, however, much of the fruits of Shelby's victory were lost. Due to the swiftness of the enemy's reaction, much of the offloaded equipment had to be abandoned and the disabled tinclad with its precious heavy guns burned to prevent recapture.

The Queen City escapade offers a clear demonstration of the danger that mobile Confederate forces armed with artillery posed to Union military and civilian shipping on the western rivers, a threat that was fully appreciated at the time by both sides. The pair of previously captured Parrott rifles used to rapidly force the surrender of the formidably armed Queen City are illustrative of how much more damage could have been inflicted had Confederate forces in the West and Trans-Mississippi not been saddled with so much third-rate artillery, and even worse ammunition, throughout the war. Also, the ease of Shelby's escape further showcased the futility of using primarily infantry (no matter what the number involved) to catch veteran cavalry.

The text is marred by a number of typos, but the main complaint is with the cartography. The two maps that are present are fine enough representations of the geographical area involved and Shelby's movements in the region, but no small-scale maps depicting either the June 24 fight at Clarendon or the revenge-seeking Union expedition that followed the Queen City's capture were included.

The Queen City incident is too small to merit mention in most general histories, but it has not been neglected within the Civil War literature as a whole. White River naval operations have enjoyed fairly good coverage over the years, and fine accounts of Jo Shelby's 1864 activities in NE Arkansas have been published before in historical journals and in a 2007 essay anthology. While not the first of its kind in terms of subject matter, Roth's streamlined study of Shelby's victory is a solid one that does represent the first standalone publication of the event.

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