Civil War on the Western Border, 1854 - 1865 by Jay Monaghan

James N.

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I've been aware of this title for as long as I can remember, largely because for many, many years it was the only treatment of its topic. First published in 1955, it was the work of Jay Monaghan who I also knew as one of the writers of that period to revive the career of the Civil War's Boy General in his biography Custer. Having finally read it, now some sixty years after it was written I can fully say it deserves the usual adjective "classic." This is an easy-to-read account of the conflict in the West, mainly the states of Missouri and western Arkansas, Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma), and the Territory/State of Kansas where the action really began.

I must admit I found the going a bit slow and confusing for the first third of the book which concentrated on Bleeding Kansas and the shifting cast of characters who populated both it and neighboring Missouri. There was good deal of John Brown here but the stooped-but-towering figure that eventually overshadowed all the others was that of The Grim Chieftain James (Jim) Lane. My essential problem was with myself, however; I'm on much firmer ground militarily speaking than political and my relative unfamiliarity with the pre-war period should not be seen as a fault of the author. One problem I had that should've been addressed is the absolute absence of maps in the paperback edition; hopefully, there was at least an endpaper map in the original edition. There are likewise no illustrations and portraits of those unfamiliar political figures might have helped keep them sorted out - to me at least!

Once the war arrived in all its panoply things moved much swifter for me - having traveled to most of these sites I had far less trouble visualizing them or the participants. Here are found all the usual suspects - professional soldiers like Nathaniel Lyon, John M. Schofield, and Alfred Pleasonton; military neophytes like John C. Fremont, Samuel Curtis, James Blunt, and other Union leaders; Sterling Price, James McIntosh, Ben McCullough, Earl Van Dorn, Thomas Hindman, and other Confederates; raiders like John S. Marmaduke, Jo Shelby, Stand Waite, M. Jeff Thompson; and outlaw renegades like Charles Quantrill, Bloody Bill Anderson and many others. There is a great deal of attention given to the travails of the members of the Civilized Tribes waging their own bloody war-within-a-war under leaders like Albert Pike and Samuel Cooper.

The three major campaigns resulting in the largest battles fought west of the Mississippi River probably receive the major attention: Pea Ridge/Elkhorn Tavern and Prairie Grove in 1862, and Price's Missouri Raid in 1864. One fact of which I was unaware is that the largest battle was actually fought at Westport, Missouri, during Price's Raid. Monaghan gives figures of 15,575 for Wilson's Creek, Mo.; 21,000 for Lexington, Mo.; 24,000 for Prairie Grove, Ark.; 26,700 for Pea Ridge, Ark; and 29,000 for Westport. All these receive full treatment and descriptions of action, only marred by the lack of maps; several smaller actions are also well represented.

The real strength and value of Monaghan's work is the overall placement of these events in a continuous coherent narrative. Other than Bleeding Kansas I felt I didn't learn too much as far as individual events were concerned; however seeing them all as part of a whole instead of being merely isolated occurrences was quite revealing, even to one who had traveled and read pretty widely about them. It's possible this may be dated by now by other more recent books but for an overall understanding I highly recommend it.
 

TerryB

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A lady friend gave it to me a few years back. I thought it read like good journalism, though I would quibble with some of the over-simplistic details of the battles in Arkansas.
 

James N.

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A lady friend gave it to me a few years back. I thought it read like good journalism, though I would quibble with some of the over-simplistic details of the battles in Arkansas.

I thought there were some errors of understanding or clarity about the Battle of Pea Ridge/Elkhorn but a LOT more has been written about it and the others in more recent years since this appeared. Of course battles in eastern Arkansas like Helena and the short campaign for Little Rock were mostly absent, as were the small actions in the Red River Campaign but Monagan's focus was pretty strictly concerned with the western portions of those states other than what happened in Kansas and Missouri. Your comment about journalism reminds me of one quibble I had with it though, particularly the parts dealing with Bleeding Kansas. In several instances, he seemed to be saying one thing,, only to deliberately contradict or retract it almost immediately. Like any good reporter, he would obviously have liked to have more than a few or even single source, but this wasn't always possible, especially given the highly partisan nature of the primary sources like period newspapers, so he hedged his bet by presenting questionable "facts" then throwing them into doubt.
 

TerryB

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I thought there were some errors of understanding or clarity about the Battle of Pea Ridge/Elkhorn but a LOT more has been written about it and the others in more recent years since this appeared. Of course battles in eastern Arkansas like Helena and the short campaign for Little Rock were mostly absent, as were the small actions in the Red River Campaign but Monagan's focus was pretty strictly concerned with the western portions of those states other than what happened in Kansas and Missouri. Your comment about journalism reminds me of one quibble I had with it though, particularly the parts dealing with Bleeding Kansas. In several instances, he seemed to be saying one thing,, only to deliberately contradict or retract it almost immediately. Like any good reporter, he would obviously have liked to have more than a few or even single source, but this wasn't always possible, especially given the highly partisan nature of the primary sources like period newspapers, so he hedged his bet by presenting questionable "facts" then throwing them into doubt.
I had the same POV problem with the Custer bio Son of the Morning Star.
 

TerryB

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I thought there were some errors of understanding or clarity about the Battle of Pea Ridge/Elkhorn but a LOT more has been written about it and the others in more recent years since this appeared. Of course battles in eastern Arkansas like Helena and the short campaign for Little Rock were mostly absent, as were the small actions in the Red River Campaign but Monagan's focus was pretty strictly concerned with the western portions of those states other than what happened in Kansas and Missouri. Your comment about journalism reminds me of one quibble I had with it though, particularly the parts dealing with Bleeding Kansas. In several instances, he seemed to be saying one thing,, only to deliberately contradict or retract it almost immediately. Like any good reporter, he would obviously have liked to have more than a few or even single source, but this wasn't always possible, especially given the highly partisan nature of the primary sources like period newspapers, so he hedged his bet by presenting questionable "facts" then throwing them into doubt.
Yeah, for both Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove I would sometimes figuratively scratch my head and mumble "That ain't the way I heard it!"
 

James N.

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I had the same POV problem with the Custer bio Son of the Morning Star.
I eventually disliked Evan McConnell's stream of consciousness style of writing and caught the author in at least a couple of errors, but overall appreciated it for the same reason I liked Monaghan: he was very inclusive, fitting many disparate episodes over a very long period of time together and assembling them like pieces in a puzzle showing their relationship to one another.

Yeah, for both Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove I would sometimes figuratively scratch my head and mumble "That ain't the way I heard it!"
As for Pea Ridge especially he placed Confederates (Pike's Indians, I believe) actually on the ridge; my understanding is that it was unoccupied, and if you've been there you can see why. The main flaw I saw was a nonexistent Union division between Carr's and Sigel's commands. Other than those details I thought his description was okay. Prairie Grove suffered somewhat by the understandable concentration on key figures throughout the entire narrative, meaning in this case Marmaduke and Shelby - who show up in other aspects of the Trans-Mississippi theater - received attention while others like Frost, Shoup, etc. - not to mention any Union subordinate officer - were ignored because this would've been their only appearance in the story.
 

TerryB

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I did appreciate his account of Wilson's Creek. My indirect ancestor Captain (then Lt.) Jesse Wynne was wounded there with the 3rd Texas Cav, in the head if I recall correctly. I didn't know they made a charge under artillery fire, so this account brought life and clarity to the brief bio of Wynne I found online. Wynne was also at Pea Ridge, which I remember my grandma mentioning when I was a kid. She may have met him when she was a little girl and he an old man. His claim to fame was having Wynne, Arkansas, named after him.
 
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