Saturday, October 6, 2012

Gerteis: "THE CIVIL WAR IN MISSOURI: A Military History"

[The Civil War in Missouri: A Military History by Louis S. Gerteis (University of Missouri Press, 2012). Cloth, maps, photos, notes, index. Pages main/total:221/250. ISBN:978-0-8262-1972-5 $29.95]

Outside of Union general Nathaniel Lyon's lightning-paced 1861 Missouri campaign, the number of books devoted to conventional operations in the state pales in comparison to the flood of works detailing various aspects of the guerrilla war. Given the disparity, a survey history of the campaigns, battles, and significant skirmishes and raids conducted in Missouri has long been needed. Flawed on several counts, Louis Gerteis's The Civil War in Missouri does nevertheless manage, in a little over 200 pages of narrative, to construct a useful and reasonably inclusive outlining of these events.

The book's short length is both a strength and a weakness. While readers new to the subject matter would likely have little patience for a 400-page synthesis, those more familiar with the available literature might wish for more depth. The unfulfilled desires of the latter group of students are only compounded by the author's decision to heavily front load his study with events from 1861.  On some level, this is understandable, given the critical importance of the period.  Lyon's seizure of  the Missouri River valley and essentially the entire rail system of the state practically guaranteed that no Confederate army could operate in the interior on a permanent basis.  As demonstrated by the initial successes of numerous 1861-62 recruitment campaigns, thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) of willing Missourians existed to fill Confederate ranks, but Union control of the transportation network placed insurmountable barriers in the way of getting these men to army camps of instruction in Arkansas. Lyon deserves much of the credit for this.  Gerteis's placement of the Siege of Lexington as the high water mark of pro-Confederate military power in the state mirrors the thoughts of other scholars and students.  However, by devoting over half of a very brief study to 1861, coverage of the final 3+ years of conventional fighting is given short shrift, an overall situation inadvertently reinforcing the popular misconception that the guerrilla war militarily overshadowed all else in Missouri from 1862 onward.

In part undoubtedly due to space limitations, The Civil War in Missouri is far more descriptive than analytical in nature. Gerteis does highlight a brief period early in the conflict that might have offered a reasonable chance for successful Confederate offensive operations, correctly noting that taking advantage of it was impossible with the theater's divided command structure, conflicting military priorities, and persistent lack of any spirit of cooperation between Confederate and Missouri state forces.  The book also recognizes the sound reasoning behind the Union army's initial allocation of so many resources to Missouri, the view being that securing the Missouri flank was a prerequisite to projecting Union land and naval military power in the Mississippi, Tennessee, and Cumberland river valleys.

The following lists are not exhaustive, but the high points of the book's 1861 coverage include Boonville, Carthage, Wilson's Creek, Lexington, Blue Mills Landing, Fremont's Campaign with Zagonyi's Charge, Pope in North Missouri, and Fredericktown in SE Missouri.  Gerteis deserves credit for not ignoring important 1861 campaigns outside Lyon's, a common failing of previous writers. He missed the boat in NE Missouri by not mentioning the Battle of Athens, but Gerteis devotes a significant amount of space to the operations of M. Jeff Thompson in Missouri's "Bootheel".  For 1862, one gets descriptions of New Madrid/Island No. 10 and the Confederate recruitment campaigns (with battles at Kirksville, Independence, Lone Jack, and Newtonia). The next year witnessed a trio of celebrated raids, two by John S. Marmaduke (the first culminating in a failure to capture Springfield and the second a fruitless attempt to damage Federal forces in SE Missouri) and one by Jo Shelby (his "Great Raid" into west-central Missouri). These are all covered in the book, but the twelve month period following Shelby's raid is glossed over completely, and the book's penultimate chapter is devoted entirely to a summary of the 1864 Price Raid. In a bit of an odd move, instead of a contextual summation of the meaning, and perhaps an appreciation, of the conventional war in Missouri, the final chapter discusses the post-war lives of several key figures from Gerteis's narrative.

Perhaps the most immediate problem most readers will have with the book is its dismaying number of typographical errors, often several on a single page. Misspelled proper names abound and many factual errors* that should have been caught in the editing process are also present. A bibliography is absent, as is mention of a number of good sources in the notes.  A great opportunity to direct readers toward the best existing scholarship drawn from a relatively obscure Civil War military historiography was thus missed.  One suspects that turmoil over the planned closure of the press (thankfully rescinded since) played a role in the substandard editing and presentation of this release.

All this sounds like I wouldn't really recommend this title to anyone, but it would be more accurate to say that, in my opinion, the book will benefit a smaller than hoped for group of readers. Those already steeped in the literature of Civil War Missouri will likely be disappointed in the overall brevity of the work, with its comparatively thin analysis and best coverage devoted to ground already well trodden. On the other side, however, new readers, and those well informed about the war in other theaters but needing a conventional military historical primer for Missouri, will find Gerteis's comprehensive summaries of battles and campaigns generally adequate for their purposes.

* - A few examples: (a)  absurdly high casualty levels are frequently expressed in the text. Figures of 1,000 Confederate dead at Pilot Knob and Mulligan losing half his brigade-sized force in killed & wounded at Lexington are vastly inflated. (b) The Missouri State Guard did not, as Gerteis asserts, completely transfer its regiments to Confederate service in 1861, the command instead maintaining a prominent role in the 1862 Pea Ridge battle. The organization also participated in the Corinth siege and existed in attenuated form until the end of the war.

More CWBA reviews of UMP titles:
* Price's Lost Campaign: The 1864 Invasion of Missouri
* Demon of the Lost Cause: Sherman and Civil War History
* Yankee Warhorse: A Biography of Major General Peter J. Osterhaus
* General Sterling Price and the Confederacy (for Missouri History Museum)
* Thomas Ewing Jr.: Frontier Lawyer and Civil War General
* Man of Douglas, Man of Lincoln: The Political Odyssey of James Henry Lane
* Confederate Colonels: A Biographical Register
* Peacekeeping on the Plains: Army Operations in Bleeding Kansas
* Missouri's Confederate: Claiborne Fox Jackson and the Creation of Southern Identity in the Border West
* The Civil War's First Blood: Missouri, 1854-1861 (for Missouri Life)
* Key Command: Ulysses S. Grant's District of Cairo

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