Author Interview--Robert R. Laven (A Burned Land) Part 2

Niels Eichhorn Discussion

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we continue our conversation with Robert R. Laven to talk about his book A Burned Land: The Trans-Mississippi in the Civil War, published by McFarland in 2019.

Part 1

That is a good point, interesting. I do want to touch on another aspect of the military struggles in the Trans-Mississippi Region. It seems like many of the leading officers were sent into this region after failing elsewhere—Rosecrans, Pleasonton, Schofield, Magruder—how much was this region an exile for failed generals and shows the importance given to the area by the political leadership on both sides?

RRL: Let me address this question by those you have mentioned and if I think of any others I will address those as I go along. Let me start with John Schofield who was not really exiled. 

I don’t think Schofield was sent to Missouri because of any failings on his part. Actually Schofield was brought into the Missouri Military District Command after John C. Fremont. It was Schofield who helped create the Enrolled Militia and the Provisional Enrolled Militia for the defense of Missouri during the war. His actions actually took some pressure off of the U. S. Army to provide active units from being deployed in Missouri. Remember it was John Schofield’s command that parried with John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee in 1864 and inflicted enormous casualties on that Army at Franklin, Tennessee. 

As for William Rosecrans the moniker of exile in Missouri might be true to some extent. Rosecrans replaced Schofield who had been promoted to higher command within George Thomas’s command in Tennessee. Remember Rosecrans had just lost the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863 and retreated to Chattanooga; here he was replaced by U.S. Grant. Rosecrans was of the type that his nervous energy served him well at Murfreesboro but not so much at Chickamauga. He would bring that nervous energy with him to St. Louis. 

When Price’s Army of Missouri entered the state in September 1864, Rosecrans immediately communicated to Halleck in Washington his need for more regular troops to defend St. Louis. He was, in this case correct, he had fewer than 5,000 men to defend the city and most of those were manning the forts that surrounded it. He deeply distrusted the local populace and suspended business for days as Price moved into the state. It was from Rosecrans request that Alfred Pleasonton and A.J. Smith’s XVI Corps was redirected from Sherman, in Georgia, to St. Louis.

Frankly I think Alfred Pleasonton is underrated, he truly was an excellent Cavalry commander; at least by Grant’s estimation. When he arrived in Missouri there was little coordination among the mounted troops to take action and he immediately corrected this. He also calmed Rosecrans and by the time Price was headed toward Jefferson City Pleasonton was in hot pursuit. I think the fact that Grant, who was now in command of the Union Army out east, already decided that his Cavalry Commander would be Phil Sheridan. So Pleasanton was sort of the odd man out and it was his good fortune to be sent out west where his service was indeed in need of. His actions helped put the squeeze on Price’s Army and may in some respects contributed to its defeat even more than Samuel Curtis. Well I should not sell Curtis short. I see it this way Curtis became the anvil and Pleasonton turned out to be the hammer.

As for the Confederates there were some who were transferred because of their less than stellar performance. For John Magruder his failure with the Army of Northern Virginia during the Seven days, outside Richmond, vexed the commander Robert E. Lee so much that he wanted him out of his Army. Magruder soon found himself in the Trans-Mississippi Dept. under Theophilus Holmes. Here he actually distinguished himself with the recapture of the port of Galveston in 1863. The citizens of Galveston never forgot Magruder. He is buried there.

I have at least one more person I should highlight on the Confederate side, Edmund Kirby Smith.
By 1863 the situation of the Confederate forces seemed dismal. President Davis saw Theophilus Holmes as being ineffective and soon replaced him with Smith. For Smith, who had been promoted to Lt. General, the assignment seemed to be a demotion but in fact he was sorely needed at the time. It was Smith, at the urging of Davis, to strike a blow at the North and the Union forces. It was Smith who decided on the invasion of Missouri and put Price in command. This disappointed Richard Taylor, another fine officer, who wanted more focus on southeast Louisiana and indeed Taylor, literally took command of that region with the acquiescence of Smith who recognized Taylor’s ability; but was always at odds with him. However, this divided command only ended up weakening the Trans-Mississippi for the Confederacy. 

It is a complicated list for sure. To slowly draw to a close, I was curious about sources. I noticed that for example the “enlistment” numbers for the N. E. Missouri Cavalry fluctuated quite a bit. Did you encounter any issues with sources? Contradictory material that was difficult to verify?

RRL: Niels, you well know that it is all about methodology and the process of demythologizing. Research is always one of foot work. I found that the official reports from the Record of the Rebellion to be reliable but it also contained contradictory individual accounts of what took place in the war. For example I refer to Sterling Price’s report on events during the Raid in Missouri in 1864. His official report and it was a long one; was that the raid was a rounding success. But in William Cabell’s report he indicates that Price made a number of mistakes including poor generalship. Kirby Smith seems to support this conclusion for after the raid he was intent on investigating Price for his failure to follow Smith’s orders.

I think that your comment about the N.E. Missouri has some validity. Many of those recruits did not remain long and many fought only locally before simply leaving after Porter moved on. Keep in mind that Missouri had organized what it called Missouri State Guard and the Confederate command in the Trans-Mississippi failed to recognize it as part of the regular forces operating there. In that case it was not as much contradictory material as it was simply difficult to keep recruits in your ranks and the record of those confederate recruits varied from one county to the other. But I have to say I had a lot of good sources, particularly from the Missouri State Archives.

There have been quite a few scholars of primarily Virginia who do not think the Trans-Mississippi or West matter much, what do you think is the most important aspect of the fighting in this region that contradicts such a perception?

RRL: I really can’t answer for the scholars in Virginia other than to say that every period should be evaluated within the largest possible context; one always needs to be conscious of bias in that regard. Let’s face it the size of the forces operating in Virginia were much larger than those across the Mississippi River. Is that a basis for defining which theatre was more important? We have to be honest with ourselves. I don’t think it should be. I suspect that Lincoln thought otherwise or he would not have suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus in Missouri if he thought the western theatre was unimportant.

As I have pointed out in the previous arguments, the fighting was not as defined as it was out east; it was not always large conventional armies maneuvering against one another. I believe one can argue that the war in the Trans-Mississippi took on a more asymmetrical war appearance than that out east in Virginia. I think the scholars in Virginia miss that aspect. Remember there are some Historians who think Champion Hill; a battle fought in the west, was the most decisive of the American Civil War.
One more important point I need to make here! It is important to remember that the Confederate government in Richmond siphoned off a great deal of the Trans-Mississippi manpower from the Western Confederacy. So I believe it is erroneous to think that the west did not matter. Without that source the Confederate armies out east would have been even further diminished and the Confederacy would not have existed as it did. I think this was paramount for Virginia’s existence.

Do you plan to continue writing about the Civil War?

RRL: Niels, as of right now I am not, but that does not mean that something will not percolate in my head at some point. For me, History is my vocation. 

Thank you Niels for providing me with your platform to express my thinking! I hope you found it informative.

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Find am agreed with the Author, Pleasonton was veru underrated cavalry commander. Both Rosecrans and the West were quite fortunate to have this Commander given the problems for the Union in the Western theatre to the Civil War.