The Civil War’s First Blood: Missouri, 1854-1861
By James Denny and John Bradbury
This book is a wonderfully illustrated introduction to the early fighting in Missouri. The title says it covers the period of 1854 to 1861, otherwise known as Bleeding Kansas but the period before Lincoln’s election is not dealt with in much detail. Mostly it is because the events of those years primarily happen in Kansas while the authors focus on Missouri’s history.
That is one of a few drawbacks that prevent this from being a much better book. My chief complaint is that while the authors included many old Missouri maps these maps were often grainy and not all the details could be seen. They needed to include one large map of Missouri that showed all the important towns and rivers. This could have been an antique map or a modern creation; it just needed to be well labeled and easy to read.
One thing that made me wary was when Albert Sidney Johnston was misspelled Albert Sydney Johnston. If they misspelled the name of one of the more important generals of the early war period it made me wonder the spelling accuracy of all the lesser known individuals who were mentioned.
The final drawback I have with the book is that there were no footnotes. There is a bibliography at the end but no notes. It seems obvious that this book is intended more as an introduction to the conflict but it still could have had footnotes.
Despite those drawbacks this is a very entertaining book. The authors do a good job of explaining the haphazard way Missouri tried to leave the Union. Ultimately the convention that Governor Claiborne Jackson called with hopes that it would declare for secession ended up declaring his administration vacant and appoint a new Union friendly government. The Confederate friendly government mismanaged its first attempts to join the Confederacy and eventually officially succeeded in November 1861, but did so without a legal quorum.
Nearly every corner of Missouri saw organized fighting in 1861. The guerrilla war was heating up but during 1861 there were still small armies facing each other on Missouri battlefields. Sometimes the battles occurred between forces that were only a regiment in size but it was still more organized than the guerrilla fighting that Missouri would become more well known for during the rest of the war. The battles of Wilson’s Creek, Lexington, Athens, Carthage, Boonville, and Belmont are covered quite well, striking a nice balance between excruciating detail and simplistic overview.
In fact that is something the book often does quite well, although it is an overview of the first year of combat in Missouri it provides a good amount of detail. Most battle descriptions offer a good amount of tactical details without becoming tedious. And the sections that deal with the movements of armies, recruiting and other activities also provide a good amount of details. If one good map of Missouri had been provided it would have made these sections even better.
One other thing the book does quite well is providing numerous illustrations. Often these are of the politicians and soldiers being discussed but there are also many period drawings from newspapers and even some modern paintings. Most pages have two such illustrations so the reader sees a wide range of personalities and other images.
Despite a few shortcomings this is a very good book that serves as a good introduction to the first year of the Civil War in Missouri.
This book review also appears in the January 2010 issue of Civil War News