Monday, July 30, 2018

The Essential Guide to the Battle of Coffeeville, Mississippi

During his 1862-63 series of operations aimed at capturing Vicksburg, the December 5, 1862 Battle of Coffeeville marked the farthest southern reach of U.S. Grant's initial overland advance into the heart of the Magnolia State along the axis of the Mississippi Central Railroad. It was a small affair pitting the Union army's cavalry vanguard under Colonel Theophilus Dickey against a larger mixed force of Confederate infantry and cavalry from General Mansfield Lovell's command under the tactical direction of General Lloyd Tilghman. Their troops well placed in ambush positions just north of Coffeeville, the Confederates surprised the onrushing federal cavalry and drove them back over a mile and half before nightfall finally ended the fighting.

My only point of reference for Coffeeville is the section (Chapter V "Race for the Yalobusha") contained in the first volume of Ed Bearss's classic Vicksburg Campaign trilogy, and Don Sides's The Essential Guide to the Battle of Coffeeville, Mississippi: December 5, 1862 (Author, 2015) is the first book length treatment of the engagement. There seems to be broadstroke agreement between the two accounts, with the much more detailed and expansive narrative in Sides's book coming in at over 150 pages and incorporating more diverse source material (particularly letter, diary, and newspaper accounts). I don't recall seeing a map of the battle in any prior publication, and Sides does include some adapted satellite images that point out historical landmarks, unit positions, and battle movements over the modern topography.

Bearss more convincingly sees the battle as a bloody nose to the Union cavalry more incidental than consequential to Grant's post-battle operational pause, but Sides interprets Coffeeville as a "staggering" victory that decisively ended Grant's forward advance. According to the author, it was Coffeeville that transferred the initiative from the federals to the Confederates, the battle directly making possible the cavalry raids (particularly the famous Holly Springs Raid) that would disrupt Union supply lines enough to convince Grant to abandon the campaign in North Mississippi altogether. This chain of events triggered by Coffeeville ultimately delayed Vicksburg's fall for many months. Sides even goes further to argue that the Coffeeville victory was an integral component of the true "High Tide of the Confederacy" that took place in December 1862 when Grant was turned back in North Mississippi, Sherman was defeated at Chickasaw Bayou, and Burnside was badly beaten at Fredericksburg. While some of the connections referenced above seem dubious and conclusions overwrought, the battle narrative itself is worthwhile reading for Vicksburg aficionados.

I only skimmed lightly over the book's multitude of supplementary extras, which together comprise Parts II through V and fill around half the volume. Among them is a collection of short chapters describing the author's process of putting the book together over a period of many years. Sides also reproduces the Union and Confederate reports from the O.R., adding his own commentary in brackets. Union and Confederate officer biographies are included, as are lengthy weapons, FAQ, and local legend discussions. The land on which the fighting occurred remains private property, but most of the scenes of action can be viewed from public roads so Sides also put together a driving tour for the book. It appears that the author is very familiar with the ground.

In addition to its questionable analysis and conclusions, the volume exhibits many of the drawbacks common to self-publishing, from less than ideal page formatting to irregular source citation (particularly in the bibliography listings) and lack of an index. Sides is also too frequently overzealous in inserting unnecessary clarifying notes in the narrative's many quoted passages. The Coffeeville battle narrative contained in Part I will probably be the section having the greatest reader appeal. The aborted overland phase of Grant's Vicksburg Campaign has received the least comprehensive coverage by far, and if you're interested in the operations in North Mississippi during this period the book is worth picking up, flaws and all.

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