Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Author Q & A: Larry Wood on "The Siege of Lexington, Missouri"

The History Press just released Larry Wood's The Siege of Lexington, Missouri: The Battle of the Hemp Bales, which is the first book length history of the campaign. Wood has authored several books about the Civil War in Missouri and along the border region shared with Kansas: Civil War Springfield (2011), The Two Civil War Battles of Newtonia (2010) Other Noted Guerrillas of Civil War Missouri (2007) and The Civil War on the Lower Kansas-Missouri Border (2003 2nd ed.).

DW: Larry, you’re the first person to attempt a book length history of the Lexington Campaign. Did you discover any unique challenges that you feel may have deterred others from tackling the project in the past?

LW: I’m not sure this was a deterrent to past historians or authors, but the biggest challenge I faced was trying to sort out the sequence of events over the entire span of the siege, particularly on the last day. There are a lot of different accounts of the battle, many of them reminiscences, and a number of them seem contradictory on first reading as to what happened when. After a careful study, however, I realized they were not as contradictory as they first seemed. That is not to say that I’m sure the events of the battle happened in the exact sequence that I’ve laid out, but I think my reconstruction is close to the way things happened.

DW: Where are some of the best places to find source material for Lexington? Does the park itself have an extensive manuscript collection?

LW: I was fortunate in that I had something of a head start in my research for this book. Jim McGhee, a fellow author and researcher of the Civil War in Missouri, encouraged me to undertake the project, and he even supplied a fairly extensive bibliography of sources that he had already compiled. I, of course, added to that list of sources as I got deeper into the project. To answer your question more specifically, yes, the Battle of Lexington State Historic Site does have a fairly extensive manuscript collection, and the site also supplied several photographs for the book. Some of my other main places for source material on the Battle of Lexington were the State Historical Society of Missouri (including its branches at Rolla and Kansas City as well as the main branch at Columbia), the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis, the Hulston Library at Wilson’s Creek, the Missouri State Archives at Jefferson City, and both in-state and out-of-state newspapers, including especially the Chicago newspapers.

DW: In your book, did you publish an order of battle for the Missouri State Guard at Lexington? If so, given the haphazard record keeping of the time, how satisfied are you that the list is complete?

LW: No, I did not publish an order of battle for the MSG at Lexington. Had I done so, I think it would have been relatively incomplete, which is probably partly why I did not attempt it. Although the Missouri State Guard had already seen action at Carthage and Wilson’s Creek, it was still not fully organized at Lexington. There were literally thousands of men at Lexington on the side of the Missouri State Guard who either were civilians and, therefore, not part of General Price’s army or who were poorly armed and equipped raw recruits. So, there were many incomplete or partially organized units among the MSG. In addition, some of those that were virtually complete arrived late or otherwise took very little part in the battle. Also, as you say, the record keeping was haphazard even among those units that did directly participate, or else such records have been lost.

DW: Michael Gillespie mentioned that the park has a special file for collecting the names of all individuals known to have fought during the siege. What is the current estimate of the MSG’s strength during the height of the campaign?

LW: I’m not sure what the estimate is based on the file kept at the park, but based on all of my reading of the various after-action reports, newspaper accounts, and reminiscences, I would say that the number who actually took any part in the fighting was probably ten to twelve thousand. This figure rises to perhaps as many as twenty thousand, if you count all the civilians and raw recruits. Some of the more extravagant Union estimates placed the number in Price’s army at close to forty thousand, while some of the ex-State Guardsmen said after the war that only four or five thousand took an active role in the battle. The truth, as usual, probably lies somewhere in between.

DW: It could be argued that Lexington was the pinnacle of the Missouri State Guard’s Civil War service. Would you agree with that assessment?

LW: Yes, I definitely think it was the pinnacle of the Missouri State Guard. In early July 1861, when it was still a highly unorganized force, the State Guard had won a minor victory at Carthage because of its overwhelming advantage in numbers over Colonel Sigel, and in August, Price had teamed with Confederate forces under General McCulloch and Arkansas state troops under N. Bart Pearce to defeat Lyon at Wilson’s Creek. The victory at Lexington, however, represented the Missouri State Guard’s first (and only) significant success fighting on its own as a relatively organized army.

DW: On the Union side, John C. Fremont has been heavily criticized for neglecting his forces in western Missouri—first Lyon then Mulligan—during 1861. Historian Jeff Patrick recently put forth a fairly strong case for revisiting Fremont’s role in the Wilson’s Creek battle. What is your view on Fremont’s level of responsibility for the Lexington debacle?

LW: I am not familiar with Jeff Patrick’s work on Fremont’s role in the Wilson’s Creek battle, but generally speaking I do feel that Fremont was made something of a scapegoat. In both the case of Wilson’s Creek and Lexington, he was concerned about overextending his forces into western Missouri and leaving the Mississippi River and the eastern part of the state unprotected. Also, at least in the case of Lexington, he did make several attempts to relieve Mulligan, but his subordinates’ efforts to carry out his orders proved halfhearted. There is probably some truth, however, to the contention that Fremont’s own efforts were halfhearted. As the New York Times said at the time, when a commander in the field has to resort to making excuses, his cause is already lost.

DW: Lexington is best known for the MSG’s clever use of hemp bales as makeshift breastworks. Are there any popular misconceptions about this aspect of the battle that you feel should be cleared up?

LW: Yes, at least I was laboring under a misconception prior to starting my research on this book. I had always imagined the hemp bales being rolled straight up the hills with the Missouri State Guard soldiers directly behind them, but that’s not exactly how it happened. In fact, the hills were too steep to roll the heavy bales (approximate 400 pounds, plus the extra weight gained by wetting them to prevent hot shot from catching them on fire) directly up the hills. Instead, they were rolled on an angle in a zigzag pattern back and forth up the hill with the ends of the bales, not the fronts of the bales, facing the Union position most of the time.

DW: Impressive as it was, Lexington was ultimately a hollow victory for pro-Confederate forces in Missouri. The Guard had to withdraw in the face of renewed pressure from Fremont’s relief army and the masses of new recruits melted away from lack of arms and equipment. Do you believe than anything was gained by Price’s victory, or was it ultimately counterproductive in that it proved that the Confederacy and its Missouri allies could not support an army in the state’s interior (thus discouraging popular support and potential recruits)?

LW: Yes, I think the outcome at Lexington was a hollow victory for pro-Confederate forces in Missouri, but I’m not sure I would call it counterproductive. Nothing lasting was gained, but I’m not sure the outcome contributed to a lack of popular support and potential recruits, at least not in the short term. I think what happened after Lexington (i.e. Price’s being driven out of the state and the defeat at Pea Ridge) had more to do with eroding Southern support for the war in Missouri than the Lexington campaign did.

DW: Anything you’d like to add?

LW: Only that this was an interesting book to research and write, and I hope that those who read it find that I’ve done the subject justice.

DW: Thank you, Larry, both for grappling with a difficult and much neglected subject and for participating in this interview. Again, readers can order the book online at The Siege of Lexington, Missouri: The Battle of the Hemp Bales or visit the publisher's website directly [The History Press].

LW: Thank you, Drew, for inviting me to participate in the interview.

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