Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Book Review: With Fire and Sword

One of the two books I'm currently working on for Osprey Publishing is about Confederate cavalry raider Jo Shelby and his raid from Arkansas into Missouri in 1863. It will appear next year in their new Raid series.

For background reading I've just finished With Fire and Sword: Arkansas 1861-1874 by Thomas A. DeBlack. This is a detailed account of the period from just before the war to the end of Reconstruction as is second in a four-part series covering the history of Arkansas.

It's nice to see a volume that covers both the war and Reconstruction. DeBlack convincingly argues that they're essentially two phases of the same event. The focus is more on political and social history than a detailed discussion of military strategy (which has been done at length elsewhere) and DeBlack skillfully interweaves primary sources and academic studies to give a clear picture of how Arkansas and Arkansans changed during this tumultuous period. A long annotated bibliography rounds out the work, adding a valuable resource.

I do have a couple of reservations. The book could have used a stricter editorial hand to clear away some overly academic writing, one howler (Missourians will be interested to know that Lexington is west of Kansas City), and a glossing over of some important details. The reduction of Sterling Price's army after the Battle of Lexington, for example, was not so much due to desertion as it was Price ordering many units to go home for lack of supplies.

Also, the book could do with a general map of the state and region. Many history books lack proper maps and I've never understood why some publishers feel the small amount of extra expense and work isn't necessary. I doubt most readers, including Arkansans, will know the locations of all the towns, villages, and rivers DeBlack mentions.

But these are minor quibbles. With Fire and Sword is an excellent overview of an important period in Arkansas history that affected the region as a whole. Highly recommended to students of the region and period.

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Looking for more from Sean McLachlan? He also hangs out on the Civil War Horror blog, where he focuses on Civil War and Wild West history.

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