Book Review: The Battle of Carthage, Missouri: First Trans-Mississippi Conflict of the Civil War


by Kenneth E. Burchett

Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012. Pp. x, 230. Illus., maps, append., notes, biblio., index. $35.00 paper. ISBN: 0786469595

The Battle of Carthage is a detailed, readable account of a now largely forgotten action of the Civil War, and one of the first battles in Missouri and the Trans-Mississippi area.

The Battle of Carthage was fought in southwestern Missouri on July 5, 1861, more than two weeks before Bull Run.  The fighting saw two bands of ill-trained, ill-armed, albeit enthusiastic volunteers (some 4,000 secessionists and 1,000 Unionists) to decided that Missouri would be a divided state during the Civil War.  Prof. Burchett (Central Arkansas) opens with some background on Missouri on the eve of the Civil War, and then gives us an almost day-by-day discussion of the opening weeks of the war in Missouri, a tale so complex that it requires nearly half the book to explain how interests, individuals (Nathaniel Lyon, Claiborne Jackson, Francis Preston Blair, Jr., Sterling Price, etc.) and events helped propel the citizens of a deeply divided state to meet in this small action that is today but little known. 

The battle itself is covered in considerable detail, as amateur soldiers fought each other in often great confusion, in a series of six chaotic engagements over ten hours, until  the greatly outnumbered Unionists gave way.  Burchett then discusses the results of the battle and its influence on the local area, as well as several controversies connected with the fighting.  While seemingly trivial today, arguments over “who won” and “what were the casualties” (the latter examined in a long appendix) were at the time and for years afterward fought over in print almost as intensely as the battle itself.

The Battle of Carthage is readable treatment of a small, obscure, but very unusual and interesting event in the Civil War, and is a valuable contribution to the literature of the opening phase of the conflict.


Reviewer: Review editor   

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