Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Battle of Wilson's Creek by Edwin C. Bearss

This book is part of my 7-year Civil War Challenge, where I read books relating to the part of the Civil War that is 150 years old. 2011 is 1861.

In the early days of the Civil War, generals and troops were mostly raw and unused to their commands or how to properly fight a battle with a large number of troops. Even in a smaller circumstance like the Battle of Wilson's Creek, mistakes were plentiful and based mostly on one part misunderstanding and one part incompetence, with just a hint of inexperience thrown in.

The Battle of Wilson's Creek is the story of an engagement that must have seemed large at the time, but dealt with "armies" that had only about as many men as a typical division would hold at the war's apex in 1863-1864. It's the story of trying to hold Missouri, a border state, in Union hands, when there were quite a few in the state who wished it to go with its slave-holding brethren in the Confederacy. There are hopes and dreams and visions of the war to come, from grand ideas that don't work to ill-equipped soldiers to civilians caught in the middle. Told right, this small battle would be quite the engaging prequel to the bigger battles to come, starting with Shiloh.

Unfortunately, in the hands of Bearss, it's a rather dry read. There's not a lot of human interest included, Bearss opts to keep his own opinions out of the narrative, and troop movements dominate the text. Even the battle descriptions are rather pedestrian and don't seem to capture the horrors of war before anyone really knew what that would come to mean. As a result, I had a very hard time getting a feel for this battle. It felt too clinical in Bearss' narrative.

Generally speaking, this battle was an attempt by the Union commander Lyon to try and do some of the things Stonewall Jackson would later be famous for. Unfortunately, he had neither the subordinates to carry out the job or the ability to make it work. Wilson's Creek is an attempt to surprise a stronger foe, and for a brief time, it works. But as the day wore on and mistakes are made, the almost double Confederate force not only gains a military victory, it has a win in morale as well. After Wilson's Creek, the South takes control of southern Missouri for a time, and the only thing the Union has to show for this debacle are dead and wounded troops.

Who's to blame for all this? Arguably John C. Fremont, the arrogant former presidential candidate who would soon be shipped well away from the war. He leaves Lyon out to dry in the face of an important strategic goal and a superior force. Lincoln also has a hand in the defeat, by obsessing over troop strength in the Virginia corridor and not thinking about winning the war everywhere, an idea that doesn't seem to hit home for another two years.

I know very little about Western Civil War battles, so I enjoyed getting to learn something about a small but key early engagement. That's the point of this challenge, after all. However, given how dense this book felt despite its smaller size, I can't really recommend it to others. I'm hoping there are more interesting books out there that cover western battles, or else this challenge is occasionally going to feel like a forced march.

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