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Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign,

by William L. Shea, University of North Carolina Press, 2009, $35

December 1862 was a dark time  for the Union war effort, as major battlefield setbacks delivered daunting blows to Northern hopes for victory in a war that had already lasted far longer than anticipated. Yet there was one bright spot for the Union that month. In northwestern Arkansas, forces commanded by James Blunt and Francis Herron repeatedly thwarted Thomas Hindman’s Confederates during a campaign that culminated in the December 7 Battle of Prairie Grove. Like so much else that occurred west of the Mississippi River, however, Prairie Grove tends to be neglected by Civil War scholars. Thankfully, historian William Shea rescues this fascinating struggle from undeserved obscurity.

Following a defeat at the March 1862 Battle of Pea Ridge, Hindman launched a determined effort to reverse Confederate fortunes in the Trans-Mississippi Theater. Federal authorities, meanwhile, seemed principally intent on foiling Hindman so they could transfer resources to what they considered more important theaters. Although perhaps not conducted on as grand a scale as the concurrent campaigns in Virginia and Tennessee, the Prairie Grove Campaign nevertheless saw its fair share of daring maneuvers, hard marching and tough fighting at sites such as Old Fort Wayne, Cane Hill and Prairie Grove. Shea describes all of these engagements in clear, compelling prose.

Military history enthusiasts will find great value in Shea’s descriptions of Hindman’s, Blunt’s and Herron’s assorted maneuvers, both in the field and in dealing with their superiors and each other. Shea also provides vivid accounts of the physical suffering the men in the ranks endured during a campaign conducted late in the year upon rugged terrain. In addition to Shea’s excellent narrative and sound analysis of men and events, readers will appreciate the high number of well-drawn maps that accompany the text.

Shea’s name should be familiar to students of the war in the Trans-Mississippi, as co-author of a 1992 study of the Battle of Pea Ridge that is widely recognized as a classic in Civil War campaign studies. Like that endeavor, Fields of Blood is the product of exhaustive research, well written, and reflects a thorough knowledge of the terrain over which the operations it chronicles took place. These qualities make it one of the finest recent books on the Civil War.


Originally published in the May 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here