Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Review - "Campaign for Wilson's Creek: The Fight for Missouri Begins, Updated Edition" by Jeffrey Patrick

[Campaign for Wilson's Creek: The Fight for Missouri Begins, Updated Edition by Jeffrey L. Patrick (State House Press, 2018). Softcover, 18 maps, 21 photos, notes, index. Pages main/total:201/224. ISBN:978-1-933337-79-1. $24.95]

The two most thoroughly detailed accounts of the August 10, 1861 Battle of Wilson's Creek remain Edwin Bearss's classic 1961 study that has since undergone several revisions and the much more recent scholarly monograph from William Piston and Richard Hatcher1. The latter is widely considered the finest and most comprehensive examination of the battle to date. Coverage of the 1861 campaign in Missouri as a whole is also quite good, and arguably the best introductory overview is Jeffrey Patrick's Campaign for Wilson's Creek2. Originally published in 2011 as part of McWhiney Foundation Press's Civil War Campaigns and Commanders series, Patrick's book has since undergone revision and was reissued this year by State House Press under the title Campaign for Wilson's Creek: The Fight for Missouri Begins, Updated Edition3.

In roughly two hundred pages of narrative, the book covers the entire length of Union General Nathaniel Lyon's 1861 Missouri campaign, from the Camp Jackson Affair through the Union army's retreat from Springfield in the wake of its Wilson's Creek defeat. Over several chapters, Patrick does a fine job of providing the political background necessary (especially for novice readers) to understand why a state army from pro-Union Missouri was aligned with a Confederate force to oppose the United States military. Augmented by a dozen operational-scale line drawings, the text adeptly follows the campaign's sprawling progress across Missouri from St. Louis in the east to Cowskin Prairie in the extreme southwest corner of the state. While smaller scale clashes at Boonville, Carthage, and other places are only briefly discussed, coverage of Wilson's Creek is more than ample. The book's small-unit detail and map coverage of each stage of the campaign's main battle is more than satisfactory. Also supplementing the main narrative are twenty biographical sidebars of prominent military leaders from both sides.

As the book is primarily a synthesis (and a very good one at that), readers already familiarized with the Wilson's Creek literature won't necessarily come away with an altered understanding of the course of the battle itself, but the author does provide a number of interesting leadership insights on the Union side. While the literature's consistent portrait of General Lyon as a fiercely independent and uncompromisingly aggressive general is largely supported, Patrick's Lyon is also indecisive and hesitant during the climactic stages of the campaign, constantly calling together councils of war and having momentous command decisions shaped by pushy junior officers such as Col. Franz Sigel (who pressed Lyon to dangerously divide his much smaller attacking army into two widely separated wings) and Capt. Thomas Sweeny (who perhaps changed Lyon's mind about retreating from Springfield, although we'll never know for certain how seriously Lyon considered falling back to Rolla without a battle). To what degree those late-campaign cracks in Lyon's theretofore strong executive leadership can be attributed simply to mental and physical exhaustion remains, of course, open to debate.

Responsibility for the disintegration of Sigel's brigade after its very promising start has always been placed primarily on the shoulders of its commander. While Patrick does point out Sigel's faulty alignment of his final line of battle on the Sharp Farm, he also addresses other important factors left out of most accounts. In the short period that had passed since the Battle of Carthage, 400 veterans of the 3rd Missouri had left for home (to be replaced by 200 raw recruits). All of the experienced artillerymen who performed so well at Carthage were also gone by the time of Wilson's Creek. Worse, upwards of 2/3 of the brigade's officer corps had been discharged before the battle and many companies had no officers at all. It's almost remarkable that Sigel's command did as well as it did that morning before disaster struck.

Department of the West commander John C. Fremont is frequently assigned much of the blame for the Union defeat at Wilson's Creek and for the death of Lyon himself. Patrick's reexamination offers a more nuanced picture than the one that emerges from the dominant historical narrative accusing the Pathfinder of all but abandoning Lyon to his fate. Patrick usefully reminds critics that Fremont was in charge of a large department with many other hot spots and priorities, the most significant of those being St. Louis, Cairo, and the rest of the threatened Upper Mississippi River Valley. It should also be remembered that Fremont never ordered Lyon to remain in Springfield and expected him to retreat if faced by overwhelming enemy numbers. Contrary to popular belief, Lyon's persistent pleas for reinforcements also did not entirely fall upon deaf ears, as Fremont ordered as many as three regiments to join Lyon (though none arrived in time for the climactic battle).

Not surpassed since initial publication, the updated second edition of Jeff Patrick's Campaign for Wilson's Creek maintains its status as the finest overview treatment of the decisive 1861 military campaign that secured Missouri for the Union. Recommended.

1 - The Battle of Wilson's Creek. Fourth edition. (Wilson's Creek National Battlefield Foundation, 1992) by Edwin Cole Bearss and Wilson's Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It (UNC Press, 2000) by William Garrett Piston and Richard W. Hatcher.
2 - William Brooksher's Bloody Hill: The Civil War Battle of Wilson's Creek (1995) is another study of similar scope and coverage, but Patrick's book offers a superior overview of the Wilson's Creek battle and has other unique aspects to recommend it.
3 - Beyond having new cover art and an updated copyright page, both editions (2011 and 2018) appear at first glance to be almost identical [same overall format, page count, maps, etc.]. It should also be noted that although it was released in 2019 the new edition has a 2018 copyright date. I emailed the publisher and asked if they could offer more information about changes between editions. The response from them indicated that "updated edition" primarily refers to the new book conforming to an updated style guide, with content alterations much less significant in nature.

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