Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign

Written on:June 19, 2012
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[posted originally on my old blog4history site]

Received my copy of William L. Shea’s Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign (Civil War America).

Publish date: November, 2009.
Hardcover: 392 pages
Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
ISBN: 0807833150

From the publisher: “William Shea offers a gripping narrative of the events surrounding Prairie Grove, Arkansas, one of the great unsung battles of the Civil War that effectively ended Confederate offensive operations west of the Mississippi River.”

Dr. Shea is an exceptional historian (not that he needs me to proclaim this!) and it goes without saying that he is the foremost expert on the trans-Mississippi region which I also take an interest in. The best compliment I can give Dr. Shea, his books are not just scholarly, but readable. They are like Joseph J. Ellis, Gordon S. Woods, James M. McPherson, and others. As an aspiring historian, published author, master’s candidate, and history enthusiasts, I appreciate the history writer as much as the historian. Shea is a scholar who writes very accessible books that enthusiasts such as myself enjoy and learn from.

I came across an excellent interview with William L. Shea and found the following Question and Answer:

What research challenges did you face?

Professor Shea: When Earl Hess and I began our research on Pea Ridge ages ago, we were warned that it was impossible to do a book-length study of anything on the Trans-Mississippi because of a lack of documentary material. We also were advised not to bother because the Trans-Mississippi was a backwater of no significance. But we were heedless youths and pressed ahead undeterred. Over the next few years we found hundreds of manuscript collections scattered across dozens of states. We ended up with far more material than we could possibly use.

So it was with Prairie Grove. I came across letters, diaries, and official documents everywhere I looked. I cannot recall ever storming into an archive and not coming out with a pile of photocopies or notes. The biggest haul came from New York City, of all places. The headquarters papers of the Confederate District of Arkansas have been hiding in plain sight at Columbia University for nearly a century. Even more remarkable, many of the “missing” Confederate division, brigade, and regimental reports from the battle were resting in the New York Historical Society, only a few blocks away. What this trove of Confederate documents was doing in “enemy hands” is a story in itself, but a definitive history of the Prairie Grove campaign could not have been written without it.

Too often trans-Mississippi campaigns are dismissed because they did not always involve the numbers of their Eastern counterparts, however, I can tell you they were no less violent or intense. And as Dr. Shea points out, there is an abundance of letters, diaries, correspondences as the men of these Western armies were very concerned with documenting their experiences. And as noted above, Shea discovered important documents not seen before that helped him to piece together a wonderful battle narrative.

Anyway, I am six chapters in tonight and am absolutely enjoying “Fields of Blood” which is, as usual for a Shea book, very readable and informative!

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