Friday, January 1, 2010

Shea: "FIELDS OF BLOOD: The Prairie Grove Campaign"

[ Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign by William L. Shea (University of North Carolina Press, 2009). Hardcover, 17 maps, photos, notes, appendix, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 297/368. ISBN: 978-0-8078-3315-5 $35 ]

While relatively small in number, the Union and Confederate armies that confronted each other at Prairie Grove, Arkansas on December 7, 1862 suffered losses similar in proportion to those associated with the Civil War's great battles. The strategic consequences were significant, as well. The failure of Confederate General Thomas C. Hindman's 1st Corps (Army of the Trans-Mississippi) to inflict a decisive defeat on the widely separated wings of the Union Army of the Frontier under generals James G. Blunt and Francis J. Herron1 only furthered federal control of the vast Ozark Plateau. Even worse for declining southern fortunes in the region, Hindman's retreat and its associated rise in disease and desertion nearly dissolved his already ill-supplied army, a situation that helped expose the Arkansas River Valley to Union invasion and occupation the following year.

All this and more is detailed in historian William L. Shea's new book Fields of Blood, the second major military study of the Prairie Grove campaign to emerge within the last 15 years2. Earlier in his career, Shea (with co-author Earl Hess) created a model Civil War campaign history in Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West, and Fields of Blood is a worthy successor. Always with an eye toward context, the best campaign studies significantly address the connections between events occurring before, during, and after the centerpiece battle, and Shea's work clearly fits into this category. Its rich offering of background material includes overviews of Union victories at Old Fort Wayne and a pair of running fights at Cane Hill. Unfolding at regiment and battery scale, the degree of tactical detail contained in Shea's well crafted Prairie Grove battle narrative should also satisfy most readers. Additional chapters cover the military and civilian aftermath of the battle, as well as the conduct and previously underappreciated impact of the subsequent federal raid on the Confederate depot at Van Buren, Arkansas. The campaign's lasting impact on the strategic balance in the region is also evaluated.

Shea's assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of each side's military commanders largely ring true. Absent Army of the Frontier commander John M. Schofield comes across as scheming and small, but Blunt, even with his tendency to narrow his own tactical vision by leading from the front and his strange initial refusal to meet Herron halfway, shines brightest among the Union high command. Herron managed one of the most impressive forced marches in Civil War history, but his decision to detach almost all of his cavalry and his piecemeal tactical deployments at Prairie Grove led to very high casualties and near disaster for the 2nd and 3rd divisions. Among the Confederates, Hindman demonstrated an admirable degree of operational flexibility, but division commander Francis Shoup's decision to halt his advance atop Prairie Grove fundamentally altered the entire army's posture from offensive to defensive, surrendering the initiative to the enemy. This action threw his commander's plans into disarray, but it could also be argued that the move was justifiably prudent given the unexpected swiftness of Herron's march.

In researching his study, Shea mined a multitude of military and civilian unpublished primary source materials located in manuscript collections all across the country. These findings were integrated well throughout. As one would expect, large numbers of newspapers and select published primary and secondary sources were also consulted. Although a full accounting of numbers and losses is not offered, a campaign order of battle was included as an appendix.

Seventeen original maps track the operational and tactical movements outlined in the text. The battlefield positions of batteries and regiments at various key moments are adequately detailed in the tactical maps, but no distance scale is provided and the cartography lacks some of the important natural terrain elements (the absence of tree lines is a notable omission) often found in similar studies.

However, such flaws only detract in a minor way from the overall excellence of the book. Characterized by deep research, clear organization, shrewd analysis, and engaging writing, William L. Shea's Fields of Blood should be regarded as the new standard history of the Prairie Grove Campaign. A weighty contribution to the literature of the Trans-Mississippi theater, it is deserving of a place on the bookshelf of every Civil War student. Very highly recommended.

1 - During the campaign, Army of the Frontier commander MG John M. Schofield was away. His senior subordinate, BG James G. Blunt, encamped his First "Kansas Division" in Arkansas's Cane Hill valley, while the 2nd and 3rd divisions were well over 100 miles away near Springfield, Missouri under the temporary command of BG Francis J. Herron. A highly mobile, interracial outfit of unusual combined-arms composition, the fascinating Kansas Division is deserving of a unit history of its own.
2 - The other is Michael E. Banasik's
Embattled Arkansas: The Prairie Grove Campaign of 1862 (Broadfoot Publishing, 1996). While Banasik's earlier work broadly addressed regular and irregular operations in both Missouri and Arkansas (and remains very valuable) in 1862, Shea's study is more tightly focused on the autumn campaign in northwest Arkansas.

Other Civil War Books and Authors reviews of recent UNC Press titles:
* A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War (link to author interview)
* In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat
* The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864
* Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign
* Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession
* Trench Warfare under Grant & Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign
* Plain Folk’s Fight: The Civil War & Reconstruction in Piney Woods Georgia
* Retreat from Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics, and the Pennsylvania Campaign
* Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861-1864


  1. Hello Drew

    Thanks for the information about UT Press. I've been eagerly waiting to see what direction this series will take.

    Hopefully they will be able to publish 3-4 books a year.

    It is also good to see their other fine series, Voices of Civil War continues.

    Don Hallstrom

  2. Hi Don,
    Yes, they certainly look to have a good start on the biographical and edited volume categories. I would like to see some campaign monographs in the future.

  3. Nice review. Really neat to see that Prairie Grove get this type of attention. I have always enjoyed Hess and Shea's book on Pea Ridge and this looks to be on the same level. I look forward to reading it.

    You mention Schofield. It seems like he was everywhere during the war. I guess he was one of Grant and Sherman's favorites because I have never determined what his great abilities were.


  4. Hi Chris,
    I've never followed his career closely. The book to read about him would probably be "John M. Schofield and the Politics of Generalship" by Donald B. Connelly, but I'm almost certain to never get around to it.


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