Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Review - "The War for Missouri: 1861-1862" by Joseph McCoskrie

[The War for Missouri: 1861-1862 by Joseph W. McCoskrie (Arcadia Publishing & The History Press, 2020). Paperback, maps, photos, illustrations, appendices, glossary, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:168/205. ISBN:978-1-4671-4314-1. $21.99]

The intense fighting that swept across Missouri over the first six months of the Civil War is often viewed as a relatively minor sequence of events that filled the national news void until the larger campaigns east of the Mississippi were embarked upon in earnest. However, at the time, the security of the "Missouri flank" was widely viewed as a prerequisite to the launching of any major military operation down the Mississippi, Cumberland, and Tennessee rivers. Federal troops flooded into Missouri after the tense political standoff between Governor Claiborne Jackson and new Union Department of the West commander Nathaniel Lyon erupted into open warfare. It was no coincidence that the Union Army's vast new Western Department, a large-scale expansion of the old Department of the West that was placed under the command of General John C. Fremont in July 1861, kept its headquarters at St. Louis. Recounting the months-long struggle between Union forces on one side and allied state army (the Missouri State Guard) and Confederate troops on the other for mastery of Missouri's land, resources, transportation networks, and large military-age population is the main focus of Joseph McCoskrie's The War for Missouri: 1861-1862.

Like every study of Civil War Missouri, McCoskrie's book provides background history of Missouri's rapid economic and population growth since statehood (which included a large influx of German immigrants), its involvement in the Kansas troubles of the mid-1850s, and its divided response to southern secession. After federal troops escorting Missouri militiamen captured at Camp Jackson fired into an angry cloud of civilians in St. Louis on May 10, 1861, the legislature authorized the formation of a new state army, the Missouri State Guard, and placed it under the command of former governor and Mexican War general Sterling Price. From there the book describes in sequence the multitude of military actions that occurred in the state over the roughly year-long period spanning the second half of 1861 through the first half of 1862, among them Boonville, Carthage, Wilson's Creek, Dry Wood Creek, Lexington, Fredericktown, First Springfield, Belmont, the 1862 Southwest Missouri Campaign that culminated at Pea Ridge (Ark.), Porter's campaign in NE Missouri (with its battles at Moore's Mill and Kirksville), Lone Jack, Island No. 10, Island Mound, and Lone Jack. Given that so much military activity at every scale occurred during this time period some clashes are bound to be left out, but coverage is solid overall (a notable omission is the 1861 Battle of Athens in NE Missouri). Emphasis in the text is on explaining the significance of these military events rather than recounting their details, which and are beyond the scope of a book of this type.

Interspersed throughout the volume are numerous contextual sections consisting of brief side discussions on a multitude of associated topics, among them the formation of Missouri's provisional Union government, pro-Confederate Missouri's controversial ordinance of secession, martial law, prison conditions, the origins of guerrilla warfare, the initial deployment of black troops in the state, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the wartime legislation (ex. Homestead Act, Pacific Railroad Act, and Morrill Act) that directly impacted the future of Missouri and the rest of the developing West. Supporting the text are numerous photographs, period illustrations, and maps. Included in the appendix section are a number of additional county maps along with a Nodaway County employment table. The latter offers readers a sense of the type and prevalence of citizen occupations one might have found in a 'typical' rural Missouri county of the time. The volume's glossary section briefly defines the many pro-Union military organizations that operated in Civil War Missouri and also contains a collection of brief biographies of prominent Union and Confederate officers who served in the state.

The book does have flaws. In some passages, narrative tense awkwardly switches back and forth between past and present. Additionally, many mistakes and typos litter the text, often affecting the names of major military and political figures (ex. Confederate president Jefferson "C." Davis, Union generals Stephen "Hurlburt" and "Frances" Herron, U.S. Attorney General "Edwin" Bates, and many more). Generally speaking, the author gets the big picture and themes right but, as indicated above, there is frequent inattention to detail. As one example (on page 145), contrary to what the author states, the forces that Sterling Price commanded in North Mississippi in September and October 1862 were no longer the Missouri State Guard, and it is far from the truth to say that Iuka was a "devastating" defeat for Price that resulted in his forces suffering losses of 30% killed and wounded plus 15% captured. Associated with the last point, there are casualty figures published in the book for numerous other battles that are also well outside accepted ranges. Many readers will be disappointed in the absence of footnotes, and the bibliography consists of only a limited selection of published sources with many noteworthy omissions. However, placed at the end of each chapter is an additional "further reading" source list that frequently contains items that the author clearly used but are nevertheless absent from the bibliography.

The above issues aside, the book can serve as a useful general introduction to the first twelve months of the Civil War in Missouri. Even with the manuscript's lack of polish and occasions when it gets some of the details wrong, the interpretations of the historical significance of the larger military and political events presented in The War for Missouri (some of which run counter to tradition) are consistently sound or at least defensible.

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