Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Piston, ed. : "A ROUGH BUSINESS: Fighting the Civil War in Missouri"

[A Rough Business: Fighting the Civil War in Missouri edited by William Garrett Piston (The State Historical Society of Missouri, 2012). Softcover, illustrations, notes, index. 302 pp. ISBN:978-0-9816939-4-1 $20]

Beginning in 1906, the journal Missouri Historical Review has published a steady stream of Civil War-related articles. Their frequency has picked up a bit in recent times, with the April 2012 issue devoted entirely to the state's role in the conflict. Thus, a rather large mass of material is available for any compiler to sift through and select fourteen representative pieces for a new volume of previously published essays. Historian William Garrett Piston's A Rough Business: Fighting the Civil War in Missouri (2012) is the second1 such volume to appear, with more emphasis on military affairs this time around.

Several articles address issues surrounding the state's political divisions and how Union military authorities attempted to sustain order and punish those that sympathized (both actively and passively) with the enemy. Christopher Phillips's "Calculated Confederate" eschews the traditional depiction of Governor Claiborne Jackson as a rabid secessionist, instead portraying the man as a skilled political operator, mindful of the state's unionist bent while pursuing his own agenda. Civil War St. Louis historian Louis Gerteis examines federal efforts to clamp down on the city's Confederate sympathizers, focusing particularly on the oft abused tools of property assessments and banishment. Such policies often had the unintended effect of driving otherwise peaceful citizens into active Confederate service, a circumstance detailed in Bill Gurley and Cynthia Pitcock's article about surgeon William M. McPheeters2. A female perspective on the civilian experience of Civil War Missouri is offered up by Erin Kempker's essay on diarist Elvira Scott.

The military selections are strong. Piston's decision to include Paul Rorvig's 1992 article analyzing the importance of the 1861 Battle of Booneville was an astute one, as the essay remains the best writing on the subject. Anne Bailey's account of the 1863 Cape Girardeau Raid is a good example of the kind of regular mounted operations that were conducted on a semi-regular basis in Missouri. Scott Porter's history of an obscure action at Camden Point in 1864 is important on several levels. In addition to highlighting a geographical area (NW Missouri) that has been consistently underrepresented in the literature and expanding our understanding of the 1864 Price Raid, the essay deftly explores the rainbow of loyalties present in the Enrolled Missouri Militia and the deadly consequences, to Missouri citizens of all political persuasions, of inviting cross border intervention by Kansas units. In terms of unit histories, Piston selected Earl Hess's excellent demographic and historical profile of a Union infantry regiment, the 12th Missouri. Another essay takes a brief look at the state's contribution to the naval war on the inland waterways, the construction yard at Carondelet.

A pair of selections are associated with the state's bloody guerrilla conflict. Charles Harris dismisses nefarious motives and arrives at the most likely truth surrounding the collapse of the female prison in Kansas City, an event that enraged guerrillas (most famously Bloody Bill Anderson) in western Missouri. In the other piece, Robert Frizzell briefly investigates a lesser known massacre committed by George Todd and Dave Poole's guerrilla bands, a lasting consequence of which was a more insular German-American community in post-war Missouri3.

John Bradbury's essay examines the attitudes of Midwest Union soldiers toward the rough, raw geography of the Ozark Plateau in Missouri. Their level of cultural chauvinism and disdain for the inhabitants and their efforts to settle and improve the land are similar to William Shea's Arkansas findings4. Slavery in Missouri is the focus of the book's final two essays. The first examines the legacy of slavery (through 1870) in Lafayette County, and the second a brief yet broader look at emancipation and the historical memory in Missouri of Abraham Lincoln.

The book itself is constructed of quality materials, superior to the typical paperback of today, but, for a few dollars more, one can buy the hardcover edition. On the selection front, one can always quibble with some of the editor's choices. In a compilation with a stated military focus, James McGhee's Fredericktown article (April 2009 Vol. 103, No. 3) would arguably have been a superior representative of the Civil War in SE Missouri than Bailey's otherwise suitable piece. All in all, however, Piston's selections of the best of recent scholarship comprise a laudable cross section of material. Readers will find much in the way of good information outside of the publishing mainstream. Hopefully, the release of this and future volumes in the series will inspire many to comb through back issues of MHR to rediscover more fascinating episodes of Civil War Missouri history.

1 - The first, The Civil War in Missouri: Essays from the Missouri Historical Review, 1906-2006, was published in 2006.
2 - Interested readers should seek out the pair's excellent book length treatment I Acted from Principle: The Civil War Diary of Dr. William M. McPheeters, Confederate Surgeon In The Trans-Mississippi (Arkansas, 2002).
3 - The common notion that the Civil War was a major driving force toward German assimilation into American society at large has been largely refuted by recent scholars studying German-American soldiers and their home communities in the northern states.
4 - William L. Shea, "A Semi-Savage State: The Image of Arkansas in the Civil War," Arkansas Historical Quarterly 48 (Winter 1989): 309-28.

1 comment:

  1. As an avid reader of MHR I have all these articles. Still, I'm glad to see the SHSM is continuing its outreach by publishing volumes that appeal to a wide audience. They've had some tough financial times in the past couple of years so it's good to see they still have the funds to do this.


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