Book Review: Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It

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by William Garrett Piston and Richard W. Hatcher III

Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2000. Pp. 408. Illus, maps, notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN:0-8078-2515-8

This book is a fine combination of the best of the "old" military history and that of the "new" military history. It serves not only as a study of the campaign in southwestern Missouri that culminated in the Battle of Wilson's Creek, but also as a good sociological study of the armies that fought it.

The authors begin with a good analysis of the complex political situation in Missouri. Like the other border states, Missouri was deeply torn over the issues that divided the nation. The pro-southern governor, Claiborne Jackson, wanted to take Missouri out of the Union, but could not act legally because the state legislature was solidly pro-Union. In the aftermath of the firing on Fort Sumter, a number of people in the state government counseled neutrality.

Into this situation strode the local U.S. Army commander, Capt. Nathaniel Lyon. A complex individual whose ardent anti-slavery stance often degenerated into sadistic fanaticism, Lyon acted to "save Missouri for the Union." In doing so, the authors argue, he did save Missouri for the Union in a territorial sense, but at the same time he destroyed the legally elected government of the state, and in consequence drove many volunteers into the arms of the Confederacy.

The story of the campaign is a classic example of all of the problems that beset both armies early on in the war. How the commanders of both armies were able to manage this has to rank as something of a military miracle. Outnumbered, Lyon decided to attack the Confederates just outside of Springfield, Missouri, impelled in part by his deep desire to punish secessionists. The conduct of the battle on either side left much to desired, but, given the state of the contending armies - ill-trained, ill-disciplined, ill-organized, ill-equipped - and the inexperience of the commanders, the generals probably did the best they could.

The authors do a very good job of dealing with the sociological elements of the armies and the campaign. They seek to provide us some idea as to what impelled the men on both sides to take up arms. For the men, who fought the battle, perhaps the most important element was what the authors describe as "corporate honor." Some of this might have been ethnic in origin, as for example with the German units that "fought mit (Franz) Siegel." For many others, corporate honor involved that of the town they came from. To run away or desert would not only disgrace their regiment, but the name of their town as well. Likewise, a regiment or company that did well in battle would enhance the honor and reputation of their town. Worthy performance in battle meant that "you could go home again."

Many of the major players in the battle will be familiar to those well-versed in the Civil War. The authors' penchant for constantly identifying units by their town name, the Moorehouse Guards, Oread Guards, etc., does lead to some confusion, especially when dealing with the battle itself. The authors might have done well to italicize Confederate names and unit identification.

This small problem aside, the book is a very welcome addition to literature on the Civil War at several levels. Both those who like the sound of cannon as well as those who like the more sociological aspects of military institutions will find much in this book that is commendable.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   


Buy it at Amazon.com




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