Civil War Book Review: Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign

Shea, William L. Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign. The University of North Carolina Press (November 15, 2009). 368 pages, 41 illustrations, 17 maps, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-0-8078-3315-5 $35.00 (Cloth).

Fields of Blood: The Priairie Grove Campaign by William L. SheaHow was the Confederacy able to find men, material, arms, ammunition, and food to defend Arkansas in the wake of Earl Van Dorn’s abandonment of that state?  The answer is provided in William Shea’s new book Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign.  With an exhaustive array of archival materials, insightful analysis, and good writing, Shea covers the story of Confederate efforts to retake Missouri and Union efforts to stop them in post-Pea Ridge Arkansas.  This campaign’s denouement was the bloody battle of Prairie Grove on December 7, 1862, and Fields of Blood provides readers with a concise, illuminating look at a forgotten fight.

Author William Shea is well versed in the Trans-Mississippi Theater.  He paired with Earl J. Hess on Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West, the best study to date on that earlier 1862 affair in northwestern Arkansas.  Shea also contributed to Vicksburg Is the Key: The Struggle for the Mississippi River.  The author is currently professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

The Trans-Mississippi after the Battle of Pea Ridge became barren of troops and supplies when Earl Van Dorn essentially abandoned Arkansas and led his men east of the Mississippi.  Into this void stepped Thomas C. Hindman.  The major general was forced to declare martial law and used every means possible to raise, equip, train, and supply a new army to defend Little Rock, Fort Smith, and the rest of Arkansas.  One way he did so was to send colonels who were Missouri men into that state to raise new manpower for the Confederacy. Despite Federal efforts to eliminate these recruitment camps and the eventual destruction of several of these regiments, thousands of men headed south to fight with Hindman’s newly raised army. Hindman had sent some of his cavalry force north into the southwest corner of Missouri and they successfully beat back an attack by several Federal brigades in a sharp fight at Newtonia. Despite the victory the Confederates pulled back into northwestern Arkansas. The Federals under John Schofield felt that the campaign season was over and two of the three divisions under Generals Herron and Totten settled in for the coming winter in south central Missouri. James Blunt’s Kansas Division was sent into northwestern Arkansas to keep the Confederates on their toes. Blunt exceeded orders and attacked the Confederate cavalry at Cane Hill, driving them south.

Hindman saw an excellent opportunity to crush the exposed Blunt before help could arrive. That general had orders not to risk a general engagement and was told to fall back on Herron, who was starting a forced march to save him. Blunt instead chose to stand firm at Cane Hill against Hindman’s entire force. Herron, with his Second Division and part of Totten’s Third, made an almost unparalleled forced march southwest to come to Blunt’s rescue. He almost stumbled into a disaster of his own when he encountered Hindman’s force at Prairie Grove Church.  The Confederates were arrayed on a formidable plateau well suited to the defense. Hindman had gotten in between Herron and Blunt, who was to the southwest at Cane Hill. Herron was worried about Blunt and immediately launched several attacks which were bloodily repulsed by the numerically superior Confederates. Just when the day seemed lost Blunt appeared on the northwestern edge of the battlefield, after taking a circuitous route north from Cane Hill and then back southeast to the sounds of battle. Blunt’s men forced the Confederates to resume a defensive posture and the rest of the fighting was hard but inconclusive. Both sides claimed victory but Hindman’s force was the one to retreat. In reality the battle was a bloody draw. More importantly the strategic victory lay with the Federals. After an opportunistic post-battle raid on Van Buren, Arkansas, the Union effectively controlled Arkansas northwest of the Boston Mountains and finished any hope of the Confederates mounting a serious invasion of Missouri.

Shea’s analysis of Union and Confederate leaders is where this book shines.  His extended look at Thomas C. Hindman highlights that general’s amazing accomplishments while dealing with few resources and little help in poor conditions.  Shea also provides detailed looks at Union commanders John Schofield, James Blunt and Francis Herron.  Schofield missed the fight at Prairie Grove, and his subordinates Blunt and Herron were forced to work together without him.  The author details Schofield’s resentment at missing the fight and having the glory he craved given to his subordinates.  Due to the lack of books written about the Trans-Mississippi Civil War, this analysis is a welcome addition to the literature.  The campaign and its battles, especially Prairie Grove itself, are covered clearly and tied nicely to the multiple maps, though these strangely lack scale.  Due to the lack of official reports from almost all of the Confederate commanders involved directly in the fight, a lot of interpretation is required, more so than for most other Civil War battles.  Shea handles this lack of these specific resources with an amazing array of archival sources from 19 states and the District of Columbia.  The author also freely admits where he is forced to come up with the most plausible explanation for an action when direct sources are lacking.  The result is a very solid description of the battle; leaving room for improvement when and if some of these reports ever see the light of day.  This is not a strictly military history, as Shea covers the effects of the battle on the civilians living in this picturesque northwestern Arkansas plateau.  All of the homes in the area were used as makeshift hospitals and nearby Fayetteville became a major center for those wounded lightly enough to withstand travel on the bumpy roads predominant there.  Shea also touches on the horribly incompetent job initially done to provide for the massive number of casualties the battle generated, something which was soon corrected.

The maps in the book are tied well to the text and give readers a good idea of both the overall situation and tactical detail.  As mentioned before, the maps do not give a scale, a curious omission to say the least.  In addition, no attempt was made to depict tree lines either.  Woods played a major role in the battle, so no representation of the wooded areas makes the battle more difficult to understand than it otherwise would have been.

A look at the bibliography and notes in tandem will typically give readers a good idea of the research put in by the author, and Shea shines here.  Prairie Grove is not an easy battle to interpret due to a lack of official reports and other accounts by the Confederate officers who commanded in the thick of the fight.  Shea obviously did his homework here in part to attempt to make up for this lack of reports.  Shea, a contributing editor to Broadfoot Publishing’s Supplement to the Official Records, uses that relatively new source quite often in the book.  In addition to the National Archives, Shea found unpublished primary sources in nearly twenty states.  This dedication to sources indicates a desire to provide readers with the most complete story possible and should be applauded.

Some readers may be wondering how Shea’s work on Prairie Grove stacks up with Michael Banasik’s Embattled Arkansas: The Prairie Grove Campaign of 1862.  The answer lies mainly in Banasik’s lack of analysis and Shea’s tighter focus.  The review linked to above explains how Banasik (much like Ed Bearss in his three-volume look at the Vicksburg Campaign) covered military events in most of Arkansas from just after Pea Ridge through the Battle of Prairie Grove with little to no analysis, an omission the author freely admitted to.  He hoped to lay the groundwork for others to come with a detailed military study.  Shea admirably picks up where Banasik left off by covering a large portion of those events in Fields of Blood.  And Shea offers a wealth of analysis and conclusions to help readers better understand the campaign.  He is especially complimentary of Hindman and Blunt, while being less than impressed with Schofield’s back biting ways.  In a nutshell, both books complement each other nicely.  If you had to buy just then Shea’s book is the one to purchase, for price, availability, readability, and analysis.

William L. Shea’s Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign ably takes up the torch passed on by Michael Banasik in his earlier work on Prairie Grove.  The book, while not definitive, is a model campaign study which draws on as many of the scarce resources available to make sense of what today is still a very confusing battle.  The author provides in-depth analysis of the men, the terrain, the lack of resources, and other obstacles which are the story of a Nineteenth Century military campaign in a mountainous and rural area.  Students of the Trans-Mississippi and those who enjoy solidly constructed and easy to read campaign studies will want to own this book.  Those who enjoyed Shea’s earlier work on Pea Ridge will doubtless appreciate this effort equally.

I would like to thank Gina Mahalek from the University of North Carolina Press.

A copy of this book was provided gratis for the purposes of this review.


5 responses to “Civil War Book Review: Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign

  1. Steve Jones Avatar

    Really enjoyed this review, and looking around your site. I did some work on Blunt for my M.A. 22 years ago. He was kind of crazy, I think.

    I’m putting a link to your site on mine.

    All the best,

  2. Larry Freiheit Avatar
    Larry Freiheit


    An excellent, very thorough review. You included a very important item and what many book reviewers sadly do not: a discussion of other books on the subject and how the one being reviewed compares.

    Thank you!


    1. Brett Schulte Avatar


      Thanks for the compliment! Since I already owned Banasik’s book and really enjoyed it, when Shea’s new work came in the mail my first question was, “why would someone need both”? Happily, as you read in the review, the books have a different focus and both are well worth owning.


  3. […] Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign by William L. Shea from The University of North Carolina Press published in 2009, is the most readable and complete account. […]

  4. […] newer book from the University of North Carolina Press complements Banasik’s work nicely.  Shea provides the analysis and interpretation missing in Banasik’s earlier work, but he focuses mostly on the Battle of Prairie Grove.  The biggest problem with analyzing this […]

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