Usually I prepare for a battlefield visit with some “read a-heads” both to refresh my knowledge and to seek out new aspects of the campaigns. I’ll add to that any tour maps, plots and waypoints for associated sites off the beaten path, and of course a trip plan for the driving part of the tour.
For my recent “trans-Mississppi” visit, I was a bit pressed on time. Since I’d grown up out that way, visited those battlefields many times before, and been reading about the battles since I was hub-high to a regulation 6-pdr carriage, I cut my preparations short. Boldly, I chose to go with one guidebook: Wilson’s Creek, Pea Ridge, and Prairie Grove: A Battlefield Guide, from the Hallowed Ground battlefield guide series. My faith in that single work for preparation was vindicated during two solid days of battlefield stomping.
The co-authors – Earl J. Hess, Richard W. Hatcher III, William Garret Piston, and William L. Shea – have all produced, in recent years, important works on these three battles. (Piston and Hatcher covered Wilson’s Creek; Hess and Shea co-wrote on Pea Ridge; and Shea independently wrote on Prairie Grove.) Beyond that, I’ve heard each speak on the battles before. In fact I’ve surveyed one of Piston’s Civil War classes and attended one of his tours of Wilson’s Creek. I had high expectations about the content of the guide, and was not disappointed.
To be honest, this is not a guide for three battles, but rather three full campaign guides in one cover. In some regards when first taking up the guide, I felt the sections were somewhat “digests” of the larger works. Not a knock, but rather refreshing that I had a “field reference” every bit as authoritative as the three larger volumes - summaries of three full campaign histories in a handy paperback.
The book follows the same format as other Hallowed Ground works. If you are not familiar, the book presents a tour for each battlefield. The tour stops are broken down in a logical order, not necessarily the order of events or the order of the park driving tour. The narrative for each stop includes clear directions, orientation to the site, explanation of the events, analysis, and additional vignettes adding to the story. My one complaint with the series in general is the maps. While sufficient for field work, I’ve been spoiled with the full color, high quality maps from the “map-books” and the Civil War Preservation Trust’s site.
A concern I had was the fusing of three battles, from separate campaigns, into one book. Well, this is a guide book, not a narrative, so some jumps are expected. But I found the introductory sections for each campaign made up for that. Such was handy when traveling between the battlefields, linking the towns and place-names passed along the roads to the historical events. Since all three campaigns were tied to the Wire Road, the inclusion of a section discussing (and offering additional tour stops) the road further aided my understanding of the road network and terrain.
Touring Wilson’s Creek, the guide took me well off the tour road on the excellent trail system inside that park. The guide did not take as much advantage of Pea Ridge’s trail system, but made up with an eleven stop tour outside the battlefield (which I could not completely tour due to time constraints). The Prairie Grove section completely covered that battlefield and offered nine more campaign stops. Finally the last section covers the Wire Road from Springfield to Fort Smith. In all these sections could easily stand alone in a single guidebook.
I’d spent many weekend days in graduate school pacing out Wilson’s Creek. I’ve camped on the ground at Prairie Grove during reenactments. And I’ve tramped about Pea Ridge as a boy scout. But I must admit, this Battlefield Guide offered a number of new perspectives and more than a handful of previously unseen locations. It will be in my kit bag for the next (hopefully not so far off this time) trip back to those Trans-Mississippi battlefields.