Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Parson: "WORK FOR GIANTS: The Campaign and Battle of Tupelo/Harrisburg, Mississippi, June-July 1864"

[Work for Giants: The Campaign and Battle of Tupelo/Harrisburg, Mississippi, June-July 1864 by Thomas E. Parson (Kent State University Press, 2014). Cloth, maps, photos, OB, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:320/381. ISBN:9781606352229 $39.95]

For decades, the best single resource for the 1864 military campaigning in North Mississippi has been Ed Bearss's Forrest at Brice's Cross Roads and in North Mississippi in 1864 (Morningside, 1979). Inside that book is a fairly extensive description and analysis of the Tupelo Campaign that closely followed the Confederate victory at Brice's Crossroads, but Thomas Parson's Work for Giants: The Campaign and Battle of Tupelo / Harrisburg, Mississippi, June-July 1864 is the first book length treatment of the Union victory that shattered Nathan Bedford Forrest's aura of invincibility.

The thousands of men that fought and died under a blistering Mississippi sun that summer might beg to differ, but many military historians consider the tactical result of the Union expeditions irrelevant when weighed against their ability to keep Forrest's cavalry from raiding the tightly stretched supply lines of William T. Sherman's army group operating in Georgia. By that measure, Samuel Sturgis succeeded in spite of himself and A.J. Smith achieved well earned laurels by winning on both counts.

The Union high command doubled down in the wake of Brice's Crossroads, raising the strength of Smith's follow up expedition to two full infantry divisions, a USCT brigade and a cavalry division, altogether almost 14,000 veterans. The objective was threefold: whip Forrest's command, destroy a stretch of the Mobile & Ohio Railroad, and prevent the Confederates from getting at Sherman's supply lines through Middle Tennessee. Smith's strike force was opposed by less than 10,000 Confederates led by department commander S.D. Lee with Forrest as his chief subordinate.

Smith's expedition marched at a measured pace due to the crippling Mississippi sun [one struggles to recall an operation more adversely affected by heat attrition], the advance finally directly confronting Forrest at Pinson's Hill just south of Pontotoc. Rather than attack in front, Smith skillfully sidestepped east toward Tupelo, his command kept so well in hand that Forrest was unable to repeat his oft successful tactic of striking moving enemy columns, though, with attempts at Bertram's Shop and Camargo Crossroads, it wasn't for want of trying. Safely arriving at Harrisburg1 just west Tupelo, Smith deployed his army in a compact line, repulsing with ease on July 14 a series of piecemeal Confederate assaults. Remaining in place during most of the next day, Smith, citing shortages of food and artillery ammunition, determined to return to Tennessee. Along the way, he inflicted upon Forrest's pursuers a sharp reverse at Old Town Creek late on the 15th before evading a final Confederate ambush attempt and arriving no worse for wear at LaGrange. All of these military actions are minutely detailed in Work for Giants, each section supported by regimental scale troop maps created by magazine publisher and cartographer David Roth2.

A newcomer to publishing in book format, Parson proves himself adept in all aspects of researching and writing Civil War campaign history. Located throughout the text are on-the-ground perspectives gleaned from the author's prodigious manuscript research, a particularly noteworthy example being the journal of Chaplain Edwards of the 7th Minnesota whose detailed observations of Smith's march south and the Union army's flank approach to Harrisburg immeasurable enrich the narrative. Parson's terrain and tactical analyses as well as his incisive leadership critiques demonstrate fresh thinking and an open minded approach to weighing competing sources and challenging traditional interpretations.

Parson has nothing but positive things to say about Smith's handling of the expedition. With the complete destruction of the more mobile Lee and Forrest an unlikely outcome, demanding a better result than the historical one hardly seems fair. Smith maintained a tight control over his command during the entire operation, never allowing Forrest an opening to penetrate his marching columns and possibly provoke the panicked response that doomed so many other Forrest opponents. Smith achieved all three of his main objectives and while he did not destroy Forrest's corps he did inflict far more casualties at each set piece battle and damaged the enemy cavalry severely enough (officer casualties were especially crippling) that the Wizard of the Saddle's remaining Civil War career never matched its earlier heights.

The author effectively deflects the common view among Forrest partisans that Tupelo was S.D. Lee's fight and Forrest thus cannot be held responsible for the defeat and heavy (more than 2-to-1) casualties suffered. While it is true that Lee as senior officer would direct any battle when present on the field, Forrest uncharacteristically declined Lee's offer to grant field command to Forrest. As he had demonstrated on many other occasions during the war, Forrest was a poor subordinate at Tupelo, conducting his corps commander duties in a passive manner then suddenly changing the battle plan without informing his superior. The resulting battle was an uncoordinated collection of brigade sized assaults, none of which were remotely successful3. Lee hardly covered himself in glory either, his gross mismanagement of the battle seemingly overlooked by the Confederate high command before they transferred him to corps command in the Army of Tennessee.

The final section offers brief rundowns (a couple pages or so each) of the most enduring controversies surrounding the Tupelo campaign and battle, with Parson assessing the strengths and weaknesses of their historiographical underpinnings and offering his own conclusions based upon the evidence. Most are touched upon to some degree elsewhere in the book but the chapter deals with many of the myths and legends at greater depth than before. Common themes also emerge, one of the most prominent being the attempt by Forrest friends and ex-subordinates to disassociate their hero from any great responsibility for the defeat. Another involves minimizing the impact of the tactical Union victory at Tupelo by painting the operation as a strategic defeat (i.e. emphasizing A.J. Smith's retreat to Tennessee the day after the battle and crediting Confederate forces for holding the field and saving an objective — the Black Prairie breadbasket — never actually targeted by Smith's force). Though supported by evidence, some of Parson's arguments have lesser impact. For instance, with so many Civil War leaders conveniently citing lack of food and ammunition as an excuse for retreat, Parson comes across as overly dismissive of Smith critics who might justifiably be skeptical of yet another general employing the same line of reasoning.

In a year witnessing the publication of several top rank Civil War campaign studies, Work for Giants is one of the very finest. With Parson's work and Hampton Newsome's Richmond Must Fall, Kent State's Civil War Soldiers and Strategies series is off to a rousing start.

1 - The fight really should be called the Battle of Harrisburg. With the entire battle fought there and not at Tupelo, history's naming the clash "The Battle of Tupelo" added a bit of insult to injury to a dying town already superseded by the railroad connected community (Tupelo) located a few miles to the east.
2 - Parson recently authored a Tupelo Campaign feature article for Roth's magazine Blue and Gray and the maps in Work for Giants are common to both publications.
3 - During the Civil War it was extremely rare for dismounted cavalry to successfully confront formed veteran infantry in comparable numbers (especially Confederate units fighting without the benefit of breechloading shoulder arms like the Spencers issued to some of Grierson's regiments immediately prior to the commencement of Smith's expedition). Decisively beating the Union infantry and cavalry at Brice's Crossroads was improbable enough and it seems barely in the realm of possibility that Lee and Forrest's cavalry, no matter how creative the plan, could have defeated the far stronger infantry component of Smith's command, essentially an entire corps of battle hardened foot soldiers backed with plentiful artillery.

More CWBA reviews of KSUP titles:
* Richmond Must Fall: The Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, October 1864
* A German Hurrah!: Civil War Letters of Friedrich Bertsch and Wilhelm Stängel, 9th Ohio Infantry
* Orlando M. Poe: Civil War General and Great Lakes Engineer
* August Willich's Gallant Dutchmen: Civil War Letters from the 32nd Indiana Infantry
* Caution and Cooperation: The American Civil War in British-American Relations
* Winfield Scott and the Profession of Arms

1 comment:

  1. Drew: As always a good, accurate review. I've only skimmed the book so far, but read the B&G article. This is a nice and important contribution to the literature.


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