Sunday, July 21, 2013

McBryde: "THE BATTLE OF WEST POINT: Confederate Triumph at Ellis Bridge"

[The Battle of West Point: Confederate Triumph at Ellis Bridge by John McBryde (The History Press, 2013). Softcover, maps, photos, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:104/126. ISBN:978-1-60949-987-7 $19.99]

Students of the 1864 Meridian Campaign, for which two fine histories exist -- Margie Bearss's Sherman's Forgotten Campaign and Buck Foster's Sherman's Mississippi Campaign, know that it was a two-pronged operation, with William T. Sherman's main force striking east from Vicksburg for a hoped for meeting around Meridian, Mississippi with a strong mounted contingent from West Tennessee commanded by William Sooy Smith. It did not go as intended. Sherman did his part wrecking the Magnolia State's infrastructure, but Smith was turned back by a vastly inferior force led by Nathan Bedford Forrest. It is a small event, albeit a turning point, from the cavalry operation that is the subject of John McBryde's The Battle of West Point: Confederate Triumph at Ellis Bridge.

McBryde sets the stage for his account of this skirmish by first giving a brief summary of the overall goals of the Meridian Campaign and noting the positions of the scattered elements of Smith's and Forrest's respective commands upon its commencement. The economic and logistical importance of the Black Prairie region of Mississippi, through which the Union cavalry would supply itself and destroy what they could not use, to Confederate quartermasters is also appropriately conveyed.

Eventually, both sides concentrated their forces and converged on West Point, Mississippi, located across the Tombigbee River from the larger and more important town of Columbus. It is here that McBryde describes the tactical dilemma that Smith found himself in, boxed in on three sides by three different bodies of water and with the main crossings all defended by elements of Forrest's command. The "battle" of the book's title occurred east of Ellis Bridge (on the west side of the box), where the Confederate's stopped a Union probe toward the bridge and counterattacked. By this time, Smith had already decided to abandon his part of the campaign, and Forrest's cavalry were opposed only by a succession of Union rear guards all the way to Okolona, where the book ends with the initiation of that clash [one might view this book as a companion to Brandon Beck's The Battle of Okolona: Defending the Mississippi Prairie, from the same series.

The descriptions of these events is reasonably good, but the book has many of the problems one associates with local history written by an inexperienced author. The decision to employ two overlapping narratives (one for each side) was perhaps an ill-chosen one, with needless repetition and confusingly piecemeal picturing of the lay of the land and the progress of the contending forces. Not helping this situation is the fact that the book has no original maps depicting unit positions and the locations of the towns, road network, and other terrain features necessary to a full understanding of the narrative. The few previously published maps included are almost entirely useless. In common with many local histories, there are also area legends mixed in with the sourced material. Perhaps the strangest of these folk tales, of which no evidence exists whatsoever, is one alleging that Forrest had 23 prisoners bound and drowned in a lake. The command portraits provided of the opposing leaders also lack shades of gray. McBryde's Smith is a nervous bumbler afraid of becoming Forrest's next victim, and Forrest himself is a faultless god of war. The more balanced and sometimes critical views of Forrest's generalship that have emerged in print in recent years (e.g. David Powell's reassessment of Forrest at Chickamauga) are ignored.

Given these flaws, the book is difficult to recommend to the wider battle history audience. Instead, its value lies primarily at the local level, as a resource for Clay County citizens to be introduced to their backyard Civil War history.

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