Author argues Carthage was Civil War firestarter

By A Contributor

When did the fighting of the Civil War really start? The Kansas border wars in the latter 1850s? John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, Va., on Oct. 21, 1859? The attack on Fort Sumter, S.C., on April 12, 1861? The First Battle of Bull Run (also called First Manassas), Va., on July 21, 1861?

Kenneth Burchett argues that the Battle of Carthage, Mo., on July 6, 1861, is the first trans-Mississippi, if not the overall first, battle. The Union Army, in uniform and using cannon, military muskets, and military rifles, fought Missouri state troops composed mostly of volunteers from the many para-military organizations around the state.

Most did not have any more than their everyday clothes on their backs and ordinary muskets, rifles, and knives, if they had any weapons at all. Both sides had approximately the same number of cannon.

Before telling the story of the battle, though, Burchett lays its background.

Southerners had settled Missouri as slave before its admission in 1820. Even so, the populace was divided between pro- and anti-slavery, and between pro- and anti-Confederacy. Governor Claiborne Jackson had declared for popular sovereignty, but actually was a secessionist.

The Union Army and its sympathizers physically ran him out of his office. Jackson and his troops headed south to join other state militia and join with the Confederate Army of Arkansas in southwestern Missouri and drive the Union forces out of the state.

It might not have happened because the Confederate government did not want to become involved in Missouri’s troubles.

On July 1, a giant comet, which people took to be an omen of a coming disaster of some kind, appeared in the Missouri sky. They knew of other comets, which had been tied to such disasters as the murder of Julius Caesar, the conquest of England by the Normans, and the fall of the Alamo. They felt that it presaged a coming civil war.

Burchett tells of the strategies that each side devised to defeat the other. Because of the poor communication between different commanders, these strategies often did not work out.

On July 6, the rain had been falling for days, the rivers and streams were flooded and difficult for troops to ford, the fields were mud, the temperature was oppressively hot, and the humidity was unbearably high.

Both sides were exhausted from their long, quick-step marches without sufficient food, water, or rest.

The opposing sides met on the hilly prairie, north of Carthage near Dry Fork Creek, and each waited for the other to fire the first shot. Finally, someone unknown did, and the battle was on.

Initially, the troops were far enough apart that their long guns were not effective, but their cannon, by firing various kinds of shot, did do great damage to the opposition.

The battle involved encounters at six different locations over a period of ten hours.

Burchett gives us a meticulously detailed, practically minute-by-minute telling of the battles and of the Union’s retreat. To this day, though nobody has been able to give an accurate count of the dead and wounded, though even Burchett has tried.

The Union Army, under Col. Franz Sigel, consisted largely of volunteers from St. Louis, who were of German ancestry (they were called “Dutch”) who were very loyal to the Northern cause. The Army was severely outnumbered, and, at the end of the day, began a retreat in a careful and orderly manner, eventually reaching Springfield.

Although it received a lot of press from coast to coast, this battle is little known today because the First Manassas came soon afterwards, and was followed by other important Eastern battles; it was soon forgotten outside of Missouri.

Burchett has placed photos of generals and other important persons on the pages on which they are mentioned, a nice touch. He reproduced an 1861 map of Missouri, which shows the state’s stream and river systems and the locations of towns, which helps the reader to follow things.

The author should have included maps which show the battlefield details, troop movements, and the like, as well as tables showing the command structures of the different military units, both of which would compliment his careful verbal descriptions of events.

Burchett teaches history at University of Central Arkansas, which shows in the work that he has done. The extensive endnotes, fourteen pages in all, are mostly citations, not comments. The bibliography is nine pages of mostly primary sources.

The 12-page index is very useful.

While a book that is this well researched could easily become tedious reading, Kenneth Burchett tells his tale well, and “The Battle of Carthage, Missouri” is a book that Civil War buffs and others will enjoy reading.

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