Thursday, May 27, 2010

Christ: "CIVIL WAR ARKANSAS 1863: The Battle for a State"

[Civil War Arkansas 1863: The Battle for a State by Mark K. Christ (University of Oklahoma Press, 2010). Hardcover, 6 maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 261/336. ISBN:978-0-8061-4087-2 $34.95]

1863 was a year of unmitigated catastrophe for Arkansas Confederates and their Indian allies. For them, it began with hints of impending conflict and ended with shattered armies and Union forces firmly in control of the Arkansas River Valley, including the state capital of Little Rock. Tactical aspects of the Little Rock Campaign have been recounted in book form before, and several good journal articles and chapter length histories of the fighting at Fort Smith, Arkansas Post, Helena, and Pine Bluff exist in the literature, but Mark K. Christ's new book Civil War Arkansas 1863: The Battle for a State is the first to relate these events as a cohesive whole, each defeat or victory building upon the next, the end result of which was a significant military and political victory for the U.S.

With the fall of Little Rock, Arkansas unionists, a significant bloc both active and passive in the state ever since the secession crisis, were able to solidify their power and influence over the vital Arkansas River Valley. The year long series of campaigns fairly crushed the Confederate military establishment in Arkansas, relegating to district control only a toehold in the southwest corner of the state. Additionally, hopes, faint as they realistically were, of obtaining lasting inroads into Missouri were also permanently lost (a fact only reinforced by the quixotic 1864 Price Raid).

Before diving into his discussion of 1863, Christ provides readers unfamiliar with the conflicts in the region with a good background summary of the early war period in Arkansas and Indian Territory.  His later chapter length accounts of the battles of Arkansas Post, Helena, Little Rock (Brownsville, Bayou Meto, and Bayou Fourche), the capture of Forts Gibson and Smith, and Pine Bluff are detailed enough to satisfy most readers. The book's content is tightly organized and the narrative deep, with Christ synthesizing well the existing literature as well as integrating and interpreting his own extensive manuscript research. The cartography is the weakest point of the study's presentation. With roughly one provided for each of the chapters (several of which cover multiple engagements), they are too few and do not match the text's level of tactical and operational detail.

The author's views of the abilities of the commanding officers and their roles in each campaign [Thomas Churchill, Theophilus Holmes, Sterling Price, Douglas Cooper, William Steele, and John Marmaduke on the Confederate side, and the Union army's John McClernand, Benjamin Prentiss, Frederick Steele, John Davidson, James Blunt, and Powell Clayton] are well considered and fairly conventional, with the federals as a whole putting in much better command performances than their opposing counterparts. However, Christ's assessment of General Price's abandonment of Little Rock being the only viable option for his army to undertake seems open to reasonable debate. The capital was fortified, and, even after the heavy Confederate losses incurred weeks earlier at Helena, the numerical disparity was not particularly overwhelming. Also, the division of Federal forces on both sides of the Arkansas River in their advance on the city need not have been necessarily fatal to Confederate hopes, and indeed might have afforded an opportunity for a counterstroke. On the other hand, the true state of the defenses seems to be an open question [at least this reviewer has not encountered in the literature a detailed description of the earthworks' quality and extent] and the sinking morale of the southern forces in the district may not have been up to a stiffer fight.

In addition to his fine military narrative, Christ also does a good job of summarizing the shifting alliances of the tribes located in the Indian Territory, as they attempted to find the best means of self preservation amid frequent incursions by mixed white and Indian Confederate and Union forces. The impact of the 1863 military disasters on the political situation in Arkansas is also well developed by the author. Each major U.S. victory demoralized pro-Confederate civilians and emboldened unionists. The fall of Little Rock led a deputation of Pine Bluff citizens to request federal protection, and the well received Union officer sent there, Powell Clayton, later became a Reconstruction governor of the state.

Civil War Arkansas 1863 is a notable addition to University of Oklahoma Press's Campaigns and Commanders series. 1863 proved to be the most decisive year of the war for the soldiers and citizens of Arkansas, and Christ's scholarly study is an excellent military and political exposition of why that was so. It is essential reading for students of the Civil War in Arkansas, and assumes a prominent place in the literature of the Trans-Mississippi theater as a whole.


  1. Drew,

    Sorry to hear the cartography is lacking in what sounds like an otherwise great book. From your prior reviews, it sounds like The Division is still the book to buy for a tactical study of the Little Rock Campaign.


  2. Chris,
    If you can find a copy of The Division, it's worth it. The writing is flowery to the point of silliness in places, but it is meticulously informative about the actual battles. The maps are crudely drawn, but there is one every couple pages and they pretty much show you what you need to know.


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