Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign In The West, by William L. Shea & Earl J. Hess
This book is a fantastic account of one of the most decisive battles of the war, a battle that was so decisive that it ended Confederate hopes in the state of Missouri for more than two years and provided the Union with the ability to invade the heart of the South because of Curtis’ skill in holding off superior Confederate forces through considerable and hitherto unsuspected tactical skills. Samuel Ryan Curtis has always been among the military heroes of the Civil War I have had the highest respect for, and the fact that his battles were all in the Trans-Mississippi region has not in any way diminished my own respect for him. The authors do a wonderful job here at discussing not only the battle in unit-by-unit detail, which is impressive in itself, but also in putting the battle in the context of the campaign that it was a part of, starting with the contest between the Union and Confederacy over Missouri in 1861 and then moving on to the Helena campaign that followed Curtis’ success at Pea Ridge and that allowed the Union to invade and take over Arkansas for much of the war.
This book is almost 350 pages long and it is divided into fifteen chapters. The authors begin with a preface that comments upon the obscure nature of the battle and its commanders. After that there is a discussion about the winter campaign that led Curtis’ army to find itself in rural northern Arkansas having chased Price out of Missouri in December and January (1). Price’s running stand to unify with McCullough’s army in northern Arkansas (2) and then turn on Curtis with superior numbers (3) is told. Van Dorn’s rash rush to glory in attacking Curtis’ rear (4) and the following combat around Leetown take up a few more chapters that focus on the disorganized charges and countercharges that made up the first part of the engagement (5-8). After that the authors’ attention switches to the battle at Elkhorn Tavern where Carr was able to hold on and gradually retreat despite facing very superior numbers (9-10), after which Curtis was able to unify his command, conduct a deadly artillery barrage (11, 12), and then drive the starving and ammo-less rebels from the field (13). The author then discusses the aftermath of the battle in burying the dead and advancing and retreating (14) as well as the march through Arkansas that brought the Union more territory (15). The authors conduct a thoughtful military analysis of the battle in the conclusion and two appendices discuss the legacy of the battle (i) as well as the order of battle (ii), after which there are notes, a bibliography, and an index.
One thing that makes this book particularly excellent is the way that it manages to combine a look at the tactics of Curtis and others in the battle itself in a very detailed and vivid fashion, but also puts those tactics within larger concerns, pointing out the staff work of each leading general, the divisions that existed in both armies between different components of the army and how the generals in charge on both sides (Curtis and Van Dorn, respectively) were able to finesse these concerns, as well as the important matter of logistics, in which the Union was superior to the Confederacy, even if neither side had a particularly luxurious time of it. The author even points out that Curtis’ experience in the march from Pea Ridge to Helena was the first example of an army cutting itself loose from its supply line and living off the land in a successful fashion, but that no one was paying attention to it until Grant copied the example a year later during the Vicksburg campaign. If you have an interest in Pea Ridge as a campaign as well as a battle, this is a fantastic book that will tell you what you need to know to make a trip to the battlefield or an understanding of the battle a thoughtful and successful one.