Wilson’s Creek, A Book Review

Posted on April 30, 2012. Filed under: Book Reviews, The American Civil War |

By Bryan E. Walker

Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It by William Garrett Piston and Richard W. Hatcher III is one of the best written, most thoroughly researched, and comprehensive accounts of a battle in the Civil War that one could ever hope to have the pleasure of reading. I give this wonderful book a 5 star rating ***** and highly recommend it. Honor!Lyon’s actions were illegal and unconstitutional! Social history. Military history. That’s what this book is about.

The authors’ hammer home the main idea that the men of both the North and the South came from strong communities that held to a code of honor and these men fought, suffered, and died, for the honor of their units, their communities that sent them to war, and for their own reputations. The authors tell us about the various communities and counties that raised individual companies of volunteers, outfitted them as best they could, made uniforms and flags for them, feasted them and sent them out to fight for what they believed in, and honor was their priority. Many personal correspondences are quoted that indicate the values these men and their women back home held dear-honor. They give first hand accounts from the battle of brave men, being horribly wounded, dying, but urging their fellows onward- honor. The authors’ use of newspaper stories was tremendously effective in communicating the pride the hometowns had as they sent their men off to battle, and the sense of honor they held after the battle. The closing lines of the book, p.334, where a newspaper, the Atchison Champion, 20 years after the battle (!) listed in bold type the men from their community who had deserted the First Kansas, shaming them forever, was powerful. Honor.

Whatever your feelings about war, about the Civil War, whichever side you supported, when you read this book you will feel a sense of pride at the HONOR exhibited by both sides. Sadly, as I read the book I could not help feeling that this manly and virtuous concept of honor is all too rare in today’s America. As much as the authors dealt with this subject, I cannot help but believe they intend to indict our present day for our lack of honor. The concept of community they clearly bring out from that day seems to be totally lacking today.

Contrasting with honor, the authors also bring out the illegal nature of what Nathaniel Lyon did toMissouri. At least ten times throughout the book phrases such as these occur: “Lincoln not only sanctioned Lyon’s action, he authorized the unconstitutional creation in Missouri of a U.S. Reserve Corps, which Lyon promptly filled,” (p.33); “Nathaniel Lyon did not ask permission to wage war on the state of Missouri,” p.44; “Lyon had declared war on Missouri,” (p.84). Point taken. Author Piston is professor at Southwest Missouri State and the book did win the 2001 Missouri History Book Award. And the authors do an excellent, and FAIR, job of analyzing Lyon, pointing out his good points as well as bad. All things considered, I believe the authors may have a slight Southern bias but hide it well as they do an extremely fair and excellent job of covering both sides in this battle. What Lyon did in Missouri WAS unusual at best, illegal- yeah, but most likely necessary for the Union cause. The firing onFort Sumter was not exactly legal either.

An example of how fair the authors were to Lyon is their praise of his innovations in using riverboats, railroads, the telegraph, and disinformation in the press for his campaign. They even go into the post-mortem events of the mishandling of Lyon’s body, his funeral, and all the claims in the press by men who stated he had died in their arms.

One of the things that make this book so amazing is the detailed social history the authors incorporate into this military history book. It is common in Civil War histories to give biographical chapters to the leading generals of both sides. This book goes into the biographical details of even the civilians whose lives were disrupted by a battle happening on their farms. And it works. Including the stories of the citizens, whose lands were occupied by the opposing armies, whose homes were shot up and occupied by soldiers and turned into field hospitals as the battle progressed, was sheer genius. But there’s more! The authors go into remarkable detail of the German immigrants’ lives and social conditions before the war, their contributions during the campaign, and what happened to them afterwards.

Which brings up another area where these authors excel. The final chapters which deal with what happened after the battle, are crucial. I do not recall ever reading a military history book that gave so much detail about the wounded and dead. Gruesome? Yes. Definitely not for the faint of heart. But vastly important. The struggle to bury the dead in the heat of August was a much needed detail. The authors describe how doctors and women who wanted to help with the wounded showed up from everywhere for miles around as Springfield, and all the farms surrounding, was turned into a vast hospital. Again, the authors manage to turn a terrible, horrible thing like war, into a heartwarming story that is not glamorous, but heroic.

Battles are chaotic, complex, and hard to follow, especially on a confusing battlefield that is broken up by geographical features that are cumbersome. The tactics used by Lyon and Sigel were difficult and, in the end, too complex for success. Piston and Hatcher do an excellent job of walking the reader through this hazy maze of battle. One crucial element of the book that they got right was the battle maps. These were plentiful and helpful. The authors gave us the big picture, all the little parts in sequence and took  time for the personal vignettes as well. This was a masterful retelling of a little known battle that in some ways, was useless for the bigger war. In other words, they told an outstanding history in an outstanding way, to honor those who fought for honor because it was worth telling.

In closing, one amazing statistic and detail the authors brought out about the Battle for Wilson’s Creek is that five (5) Union soldiers would receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for their parts in this battle. Honor!

On a personal note, in my attempt at reading through the Battles of the Civil War in chronological order, I got off to a late start-beginning in July of 2011, and have gotten further behind since. I just finished another book on the Ft. Henry-Corinth campaigns and almost decided to NOT go back and read this book after becoming aware of it. I am very glad that I did go back, breaking my sequence, and read about the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. I read this book in April of 2012.


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