Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Knight: "THE BATTLE OF PEA RIDGE: The Civil War Fight for the Ozarks"

[ The Battle of Pea Ridge: The Civil War Fight for the Ozarks by James R. Knight (The History Press, 2012). Softcover, 14 maps, photos, appendices, notes, index. Pages main/total:136/160.  ISBN:978-1-60949-447-6  $19.99 ]

Scholars and the reading public are fortunate that the only significant work addressing the campaign and March 7-8, 1862 Battle of Pea Ridge -- William L. Shea and Earl J. Hess's Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West (UNC Press, 1992) -- happens to be one of the very best studies of its kind in the entire body of Civil War publishing.  James R. Knight's The Battle of Pea Ridge: The Civil War Fight for the Ozarks, his third contribution to The History Press's Civil War Sesquicentennial Series, is essentially a compact form of Shea and Hess's definitive work.

The Battle of Pea Ridge provides the uninitiated with a good introduction to events in SW Missouri and NW Arkansas in the months and weeks preceding the 1862 campaign. Both operational and tactical features are skillfully outlined. Highlighted is the skirmish at Bentonville on March 6, the bitter fighting over the next two days at Oberson's Field, Morgan's Woods, Elkhorn Tavern, Clemon's Farm, and Ruddick's Field, and, finally, the disorderly Confederate retreat to Van Buren. In assessing the actions of the commanders, and in describing and interpreting the events of the battle, Knight leans heavily on Shea and Hess, so readers familiar with the earlier work will not find themselves in possession of much in the way of new information or insights into old controversies. Instead, what is offered is an excellent account of Pea Ridge for the larger subset of Civil War readers for whom deep, micro-tactical battle treatments hold limited appeal.

What the book has most in common with the better battle histories is an artistically attractive and fully functional set of operational and tactical maps (14 by my count). Topographically detailed, they provide a superb sense of how the terrain (characterized by thick, wooded ravines and striking rock outcroppings interspersed with improved farm fields and scattered dwellings) informed the planning and course of the fighting. The unit scale (regiments and batteries) is appropriate to the level of the text. In addition to the cartography, many modern photos of battlefield views and period images of the officers involved are scattered throughout the book.

Complaints include the lack of a bibliography and the impression that coverage of the battle's second day was a bit rushed, but, overall, The Battle of Pea Ridge is short form campaign and battle history at its finest, with content and presentation very worthy of emulation. It is certainly one of the best entries in the publisher's Sesquicentennial series of Civil War studies.


  1. I am reading the book presently, and find it a good campaign account, although, as you say, very brief in nature. The author is a fine writer.

    Why publishers fail to include a biliography in books these days is simply beyong my comprehension, since they add few papes to a book, but clearly enhance its quality.

    1. I agree, Jim. In the case of bibliographies, costs savings seem to be very small compared to what is gained in both scholarly utility and in expressing the seriousness of the work.


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