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The Civil War in Missouri: A Military History by Louis S. Gerteis (review)

From: Civil War History
Volume 60, Number 1, March 2014
pp. 100-101 | 10.1353/cwh.2014.0004

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The title of Louis Gerteis's recent work leaves little question as to its nature. Gerteis tells the reader, "This is a work of traditional military history" and uses the next 208 pages to provide a much-needed study of conventional warfare in a state often thought to be the exclusive domain of guerrilla warfare (1). While few of the stories are new and the sources from which they are culled are mostly familiar, Gerteis retells the history of events like the "Boonville Races" and the Camp Jackson affair with new insight and new details regarding the conduct of the Federal and Confederate armies. Through this telling, the reader is reminded that it was not preordained that formal Confederate forces would vacate the state or that Missouri would become the domain of bushwhackers. Rather, the commanders of formal armies schemed, campaigned, and waged desperate battles in the state, believing that a decisive victory (or defeat) would change the outcome of the war in the state and alter the war's course on a national level.

Where his work is strongest, Gerteis (re)infuses military history as the driver in our understanding of Civil War Missouri. For instance, Lincoln's sacking of John C. Frémont as the commander of Union forces in Missouri is often seen as the direct result of the latter's radical politics. When Frémont declared free all of the enslaved people in his Department of the West in 1861, Lincoln reprimanded his general for potentially pushing this much-needed border state away from the Union and toward the Confederacy. However, as Gerteis convincingly demonstrates, Lincoln was as fed-up with Frémont's incompetence on the battlefield as he was with the general's lack of political savvy. According to Gerteis, "the inability of John C. Frémont to deal at all effectively with the growing danger at Lexington hastened the erosion of confidence within the Lincoln administration concerning his capacity to command the Department of the West" (108). In other words, while he still would have reversed them, Lincoln could have looked past Frémont's political blunders and left him in command had the general been able to effectively thwart the Confederate forces in his department.

If this work has a fault, it is a minor one. Gerteis's explanation for ignoring guerrilla warfare gives reason for pause. He claims that guerrilla warfare has been overemphasized in the study of Civil War Missouri. However, as Daniel Sutherland has illustrated in A Savage Conflict (2009), Civil War historians have yet to come to grips with the full size and scope of the war's guerrilla conflict. Moreover, Gerteis injects morality into his rationale for elevating the study of conventional warfare above guerrilla warfare. Conventional warfare was apparently better because it "focused an army's capacity for violence and destruction on enemy combatants, not on civilians," and "the ability of conventional military forces to maintain stability and security always stood in sharp contrast to the ruthlessness of guerrilla actions"(3). However, in The Hard Hand of War (1995), Mark Grimsley demonstrates that it was the Union army's policy of focusing on civilians—mostly women—that helped to turn the tide in the Union's favor. Also, Grimsley demonstrates that these policies were first developed and articulated in Missouri. That is not to say that the guerrilla war was not ruthless and bloody, only that Sherman's March to the Sea and Grant's war of attrition suggest that ruthless destruction and bloodletting were not the exclusive purview of guerrillas.

Overall, Gerteis has set the bar high. Despite whatever minor gripes this reader might have, this book is a pleasure to read. Gerteis accomplishes his goal of writing a top-notch conventional military history of Civil War Missouri. In the same vein as the recent classics of military history—Bill Piston and Richard Hatcher's Wilson's Creek and William Shea and Earl Hess's Pea Ridge—the reader will find her- or himself fully engrossed in the details of tactics, strategy, and the thought processes of the commanders on the ground. History, at its best, has the ability to transport its reader into the...



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