Work for Giants

Work for Giants

The Campaign and Battle of Tupelo/Harrisburg, Mississippi, June-July 1864

Thomas E. Parson

Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio, 2014, 320 pages

Book Review published on: October 13, 2017

In Work for Giants, National Park Service ranger (and retired Navy chief petty officer) Thomas E. Parson has produced a magisterial and definitive history of the most effective of the many campaigns sent into northern Mississippi in the first half of 1864. It was all designed to keep Confederate raiders, most notably the famed cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest, away from Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s supply lines during the Atlanta campaign. In addition to detailing the tactical movements and combat on a level on par with other noted historians of western theater battles such as Peter Cozzens, Parson corrects the distorted historical record that “Lost Cause” apologists have put forward arguing that the Battle of Tupelo somehow represented a Confederate victory.

Parson clearly demonstrates that the operation, capably led by Brig. Gen. A. J. Smith, achieved all of its operational objectives. It cut the Mobile and Ohio Railroad in Tupelo, Mississippi, pushing the Confederate base of operations farther away from the vulnerable Union rail lines in Tennessee. It prevented the Confederates from detaching Forrest’s command for a raid on those lines, and it inflicted a severe defeat on the raiders, emptying their saddles and wearing down their stock to keep the trains running unimpeded to Sherman’s army outside Atlanta throughout that siege. That Smith ceded the field after the battle and did not raid farther into Mississippi is immaterial; his was a Clausewitzian campaign directed at the enemy’s fielded forces rather than a Jominian thrust designed to take and hold territory. Parson’s service in correcting the historical narrative, as well as in providing an engaging and informative narrative of the operation, makes Work for Giants a worthy addition to the shelves of any serious historian of the Civil War.

From February through June 1864, Union authorities in Memphis sent a series of failed campaigns into northern Mississippi in an attempt to tie up Confederate raiders. In February, Brig. Gen. William Sooy Smith’s expedition to Okolona, while resulting in a tactical victory, failed to prevent Forrest’s raid the following month that reached the banks of the Ohio River at Paducah. A minor quibble here is Parson’s reference to the “alleged atrocities” at Fort Pillow, an episode that has ample proof in the historical record. In June, Brig. Gen. Samuel Sturgis’s foray resulted in a clear defeat to his numerically superior force at Brice’s Crossroads, opening Forrest’s path into Tennessee during the most critical stages of Sherman’s maneuvering toward Atlanta. Into this void stepped A. J. Smith’s “gorillas,” fresh from the Red River campaign in Louisiana, aided effectively by a much-improved Union cavalry and a brigade of U.S. Colored Troops soldiers.

Smith’s adept handling of his column in the debilitating heat of a Mississippi summer enabled him to outmaneuver Forrest and force the Confederate department commander, Maj. Gen. Stephen D. Lee, to order an ill-fated attack on Smith’s strong position at Harrisburg, just outside Tupelo. In typical Forrest fashion, the cavalryman became petulant and disruptive, resenting his superior’s pedigree and command authority, and sulking ineffectively through most of the battle. Fighting on the defensive, Smith’s force inflicted almost 1,400 casualties on his opponent, including a painful wound to Forrest himself in a final charge on Smith’s retreating column at Old Town Creek, while suffering only six hundred of his own. Their efforts were hampered only by unethical defense contractors who provided spoiled rations and contaminated ammunition that “slipped by the inspectors and made its way into the cartridge boxes of the 12th Iowa, 7th Minnesota, and 119th Illinois.” In the final section, titled “A Second Battle,” Parson details how postwar Confederates turned this decisive defeat into a mythical victory, distorting the historical narrative for generations.

Overall, Work for Giants is a welcome addition to the voluminous literature of Civil War battles and will help military professionals better understand the intricate nuances of security and sustainment operations.

Book Review written by: Christopher M. Rein, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas