Elder on Piston, '"We Gave Them Thunder" Marmaduke's Raid and the Civil War in Missouri and Arkansas'

William Garrett Piston
Donald Elder

William Garrett Piston. "We Gave Them Thunder" Marmaduke's Raid and the Civil War in Missouri and Arkansas. Little Rock: University of Arkansas Press, 2021. 354 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-73462-901-9

Reviewed by Donald Elder (Eastern New Mexico University) Published on H-CivWar (August, 2022) Commissioned by G. David Schieffler (Crowder College)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56973

While many Americans familiar with the phrase “the best defense is a good offense” would immediately associate the concept with collegiate or professional football, it may surprise them to learn that the adage first appeared in 1799 in a letter addressing military, rather than sporting, strategy. Writing in June of that year to John Trumbull, who had served as his aide-de-camp during the American Revolution before becoming a successful artist, George Washington asserted that “offensive operations, often times, [are] the surest, if not the only (in some cases) means of defence.”

Written during the midst of the Quasi-War fought by the United States against France at the end of the eighteenth century, these words harkened back to the days when Washington saved the American cause during the Revolution with a daring offensive campaign that resulted in victories at Trenton and Princeton. Believing that in 1799 the United States once again faced a threat from a powerful European foe, Washington obviously believed that an aggressive strategy could still provide the best protection for his country.

As fate would have it, six decades later another fledgling nation found itself in the same situation that the United States had in its early history, fighting for its very existence against a more powerful enemy. Ironically, now the United States played the latter role, as it tried during the American Civil War to prevent the Confederate States of America from becoming an independent nation. Early on, the Lincoln administration had recognized that to do so it needed to militarily regain control of the seceded states, and accordingly had developed plans for offensive campaigns both east and west of the Mississippi River.

Before it could reclaim seceded territory in the trans-Mississippi region, however, the Union had to secure its control of the border state of Missouri. By the end of 1862, the Federals had seemingly achieved that objective, having in a two-week span defeated Confederate forces just south of the Missouri border in Arkansas at the battles of Cane Hill and Prairie Grove. These defeats suggested that the Confederates should simply cede control of Missouri to the Federals and concentrate their efforts instead on combatting further Union advances into Arkansas in that state itself.

While logical, that strategy did not appeal to Confederate brigadier general John Sappington Marmaduke, who commanded a mixed force of infantry, cavalry, and artillery in northwestern Arkansas. Instead, when given a chance by his commanding officer he chose to emulate the strategy employed by George Washington, launching an assault on Union installations located at Springfield and Hartsville in southwestern Missouri. In this manner, he hoped at best to give the Confederacy control of that area, or at the very least delay any further Union advances into Arkansas.

Although Marmaduke’s campaign in January of 1863 has attracted some scrutiny over the past 150 years, William Garrett Piston and John C. Rutherford decided that his venture into southwestern Missouri deserved a more thorough treatment. Their efforts resulted in the publication of “We Gave Them Thunder:” Marmaduke’s Raid and the Civil War in Missouri and Arkansas. While the authors do an excellent job of describing the events surrounding Marmaduke’s raid, they also attempt to provide an answer to the most important question involved in the campaign: did his offensive foray represent the best chance that the Confederates had of forestalling further Union advances into Arkansas? While some historians may disagree with the opinion that the authors state regarding that question, all those who read this monograph will undoubtedly acknowledge that the two have based their conclusion on a wealth of primary and secondary sources and have done full justice to the combatants on both sides who did battle in southwestern Missouri in early January of 1863.

One reason for the overall quality of “We Gave Them Thunder” stems from the fact that the two authors live in the area where Marmaduke’s campaign took place. William Piston spent twenty-nine years teaching history classes at Missouri State University in Springfield and has written extensively on the Civil War as it pertained to the state of Missouri. John Rutherford has a vast knowledge of the local history of Greene County, Missouri, which he has put to good use over the years in aiding individuals seeking to know more about their ancestors who once lived in the area. Their familiarity with the landscape and terrain served them well in their descriptions of the topographical features that influenced the outcomes of the battles, and their interest in the history of that area helped make them aware of a wide range of sources that relate to Marmaduke’s raid. Some other sources that deal with the battles may exist, but given the extensive bibliography that the authors provide, it seems unlikely that Piston and Rutherford failed to examine any document that one could reasonably expect them to have consulted.

A successful monograph must demonstrate a thorough grasp of source materials, but it must also convey the information gathered in an engaging manner to have the greatest impact. “We Gave Them Thunder” succeeds in this regard as well. Piston and Rutherford tell the story of Marmaduke’s raid in chronological fashion, deftly switching their focus from the Confederate raiders to the Union defenders and then back again. What might have resulted in a confusing account of opposing forces deploying in two different locales becomes instead a smoothly flowing narrative that never allows itself to stray too far in one direction or the other.

Rather than simply begin their monograph with a discussion of Marmaduke’s moves against Springfield and Hartville, Piston and Rutherford begin their book with a discussion of the events that made Missouri a hotly contested theater of operations in the first place. Noting the Union efforts that had resulted in their control of Springfield by the spring of 1862, they then begin to examine the steps by which Springfield became a major staging area for Union forces marshaling for offensive operations in northwestern Arkansas. As they conclude chapter 2, the authors give an excellent description of how the Union attempted to construct a series of outposts that would create an early warning system to detect any Confederate effort to take Springfield. They also discuss the process by which the Federals planned to defend the city itself, noting that the fortifications they built, while formidable, remained under construction as 1862 came to an end.

As previously noted, Union successes at Cane Hill and Prairie Grove had seemingly placed them in a position to easily advance further into northwestern Arkansas and in the process deal a knockout blow to the rapidly dwindling army of Confederate general Thomas Hindman. Hindman’s precarious situation worsened on December 28, 1862, when a Federal force attacked his supply base at Van Buren, destroying or carting off most of the materiel stored there. Seeking to rectify the situation, Hindman ordered his subordinate John Marmaduke to strike a similar blow at the Union supply chain in Missouri. Marmaduke’s attempts to carry out his broad discretionary instructions would result in the battles at Springfield and Hartville.

As he moved into Missouri, Marmaduke kept his options open, capturing a few minor targets of opportunity. Finally, on January 6 he received a report which indicated that the Federal supply depot at Springfield had few defenders guarding it. Recognizing the benefits that would result from capturing that town, Marmaduke immediately decided to make a concerted effort to achieve that outcome.

While the success of that attack ultimately depended on the performance of the Confederate rank and file, leadership of these men would have a profound effect on the eventual outcome. Here, Piston and Rutherford do an exceptional job of bringing the Confederate commanders to life. Indeed, these descriptions of the Confederate hierarchy offer significant insights into the crucial decisions that these individuals made during the campaign.

Marmaduke brought with him battle-tested veterans, many of whom had fought with distinction at Prairie Grove. The Federals, on the other hand, would have few defenders who could boast of similar combat experience. Moreover, three different types of soldiers comprised the bulk of the force that would oppose Marmaduke’s offensive: one recently recruited Iowa infantry regiment, members of the Missouri State Militia, and elements of the Enrolled Missouri Militia. To further complicate matters, approximately three hundred Union soldiers convalescing in military hospitals chose to leave their beds and join their comrades on the battle line. Given the name the Quinine Brigade, these men went into battle piecemeal in groups of fifty. Finally, a handful of civilians volunteered to defend their city and soon found themselves deployed alongside Union enlisted personnel. Exercising effective command and control would therefore represent a far greater problem for the defenders of Springfield than for their adversaries.

Fortunately for the Union, the men who oversaw the defense of Springfield proved up to the challenge. As they did with the Confederate commanders, Piston and Rutherford do a superb job of discussing the backgrounds and personalities of the Federal officers who would help guide the defense in depth at Springfield on January 8, 1863. Noting that General Egbert Benson Brown and Colonel Benjamin Crabb had overlapping command responsibilities that could have resulted in a disjointed response to Marmaduke’s attack, the authors demonstrate that the two men instead collaborated at every stage of the battle.

Rather than simply throw his men against one section of Springfield’s defensive perimeter, Marmaduke chose to attack across a broad front from the south and southwest. As the battle developed, both sides maneuvered in an attempt to gain the upper hand, resulting in a conflict that remained highly fluid until its conclusion. While combat of this nature discussed in a monograph can pose challenges for readers to follow, Piston and Rutherford have described the battle in terms that make it much easier to form a mental picture of what transpired at Springfield. Moreover, the authors have included detailed colored maps that depict the engagement at various points during the day. Readers will therefore have little difficulty visualizing the battle that took place on January 8, 1863.

After the Battle of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington described the engagement as “the nearest-run thing” in his life, and one might use the same phrase to describe the fight at Springfield. On a number of occasions, the Confederates came close to capturing Springfield, but every time the Federal defenders managed to hold critical positions. The Confederates fought well, but lacking numerical superiority and effective artillery, they could not prevail against the well-led and highly motivated Union defenders.

While it may seem foolhardy for Marmaduke to have gone into battle without a preponderance of force, Piston and Rutherford point out that he believed that by the end of the day he would have amassed a superior force. As he moved north from Arkansas, Marmaduke had ordered a detachment of Confederate cavalry under the command of Colonel Joseph Porter to rendezvous with him at Hartville, Missouri. When he decided to attack Springfield, Marmaduke had sent couriers to Porter with orders for him to join in the assault. Unfortunately for Marmaduke, Porter had not received these orders, and as a result he kept his force situated at Hartville. After the Battle of Springfield, Marmaduke joined up with his subordinate at Hartville on January 10 and learned of a small Union brigade camped nearby. Marmaduke then contemplated his next move.

Whatever Marmaduke might have planned at that time, a report of a Union cavalry force approaching from the west forced his hand. Quickly, he decided to move against the brigade located near Hartville rather than wait for the mounted Union force to reach his position and attack him. Therefore, early on the morning of January 11, Marmaduke ordered the troops under his combined command to move forward against the nearby brigade, commencing the Battle of Hartville.

For the second time in three days, the veteran Confederates would face a largely untested foe. While the Union brigade included small detachments of seasoned Missouri and Iowa cavalry, the two infantry regiments, the 99th Illinois and the 21st Iowa, had never seen battle. In addition, at Hartville, Marmaduke would have better than a two-to-one numerical superiority. But Union colonel Samuel Merrill proved both resolute and resourceful, and in the ensuing battle he and his men held their positions. By the end of the day, Marmaduke felt compelled to disengage his force and retreat southward. Here again, Piston and Rutherford provide useful maps of the battle, allowing readers to follow the action as it progressed.

With the Confederate retreat from Hartville. Marmaduke’s raid came to an end. At first glance, the only result of the expedition seemed to come from the roughly equal casualties incurred by both sides. Marmaduke could point to his destruction of a number of Union outposts guarding the approaches to Springfield during his raid, but the Federals could, and did, rebuild these “tripwires.” Outside of temporarily depriving the Union of these outposts, then, Marmaduke seems to have accomplished very little as a result of his raid.

Piston and Rutherford, however, choose to view the raid differently. Indeed, they argue that because of Marmaduke’s expedition, “the pressure on Hindman’s beleaguered army lessened to some degree” (p. 262). To support their assertion, the authors point to the fact that Marmaduke’s raid forced a redeployment of Union troops in the region to help protect Springfield. Adding in the time and expense involved in rebuilding the outposts destroyed by the Confederates, Piston and Rutherford contend that the strategic gains for the Confederates more than offset the losses in killed, captured, and deserted. They would therefore no doubt agree with the sentiment expressed by George Washington regarding the validity of basing a defensive strategy on offensive initiatives.

With the clarity that hindsight offers, one might question whether Washington’s axiom actually applies in this case. Could the men and horses lost as a result of Marmaduke’s raid have better served the Confederates in July of 1863, when they failed to recapture Helena? More importantly, might they have prevented the almost simultaneous captures of both Ft. Smith and Little Rock a few months later? Perhaps, but Piston and Rutherford make a strong case in favor of the conclusion that something immediate had to be done in the wake of the reverses suffered by the Confederates at Prairie Grove, Cane Hill, and Van Buren, and that Marmaduke’s raid offered the best chance to reverse, or at least stabilize, the military situation in northwestern Arkansas. For anyone wanting to know more about that fateful cast of the die, “We Gave Them Thunder” will provide them with an engaging, informative, and impressively illustrated examination of that bold campaign.

Citation: Donald Elder. Review of Piston, William Garrett, "We Gave Them Thunder" Marmaduke's Raid and the Civil War in Missouri and Arkansas. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. August, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56973

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