Writing from the Trans-Mississippi Theatre

Emerging Civil War welcomes guest author Nathan Provost

“How can I trust your work if you have not visited the battlefield?” “Why have you not visited the battlefield?” “Why don’t you study the battles of the Trans-Mississippi?” These are all legitimate questions I receive occasionally. I’ve lived in Kansas City most of my life. Here, I experience the best barbecue, the Royals and Chiefs, and the World War I museum. There is a great Civil War history here in Kansas City that I would encourage any enthusiast to investigate. Nonetheless, my emphasis is on Grant’s Eastern Campaigns, more specifically the battle of Cold Harbor. How can someone from Kansas City become an expert on the Overland and Petersburg Campaigns if they do not reside in Virginia?

Three years ago, I read Gordon Rhea’s Overland Campaign series and fell in love with the subject. I study Ulysses Grant’s strategy, operations, and tactics with great fascination. This obsession led me to read any book on that subject; there is a Civil War military history collection in my library. When I ran out of books, I utilized both the University of Central Missouri and Liberty University’s databases. I can read all the books, primary sources, and articles on these various campaigns of 1864. Many might question my expertise on the subject, but part of a doctoral program is that students are required to read a plethora of works within their focus area during their first year. They do not begin analyzing the various interpretations really until their second or third semester in their graduate program. I remind all the Civil War enthusiasts that despite my love for Kansas City, I have found various resources and made personal connections that enable me to learn more about Virginia’s battles.

No historian can claim success without giving credit to those that helped them along the way. Most of my success comes from the connections I have with Dr. Steven Woodworth, Dr. William Feis, and Dr. Chris Mackowski. All three of these historians provided invaluable resources that aided in my research and aided in the opportunities for me to write. Fifty years ago, it would have been impossible to study Cold Harbor without living in the general area. With the digitization of the Official Records, maps, and other primary sources, there is not an immediate need for me to visit the battlefield. Nonetheless, my work is incomplete without the common soldier’s broad experience, and it is incomplete without understanding what the soldiers and officers observed on the battlefield. My conclusions are still yet to be determined until I experience the battlefield myself.

The best historians walk the battlefield while also considering the multiple interpretations of the events and analyzing them objectively. I wouldn’t say I like to count myself out of this category, but unfortunately, there are a few that raise their nose when I put forth my interpretations simply because I have not yet walked the battlefield. This criticism is discouraging, as I am only 26, and my financial situation limits my ability to travel. It is one area that is simply out of my control. My position will not always remain the same, but a few more senior amateur historians and even professional historians forget or ignore my youth. When these criticisms get to me, I tend to receive feedback from loved ones who encourage me to stay here in my beloved Kansas City.

As I mentioned previously, I would encourage any Civil War enthusiast to visit Kansas City as there are smaller battlefields nearby to see and a small area at Loose Park dedicated to the Battle of Westport. It was my great-great-great-grandfather, Johann Ficke (later John Fick), that fought at Byram’s Ford. Other friends recommend studying Grant’s battles out west like that of Belmont or Vicksburg. These battles incite great interest, but it is not the same passion or dedication for Grant’s campaigns in Virginia. I cannot help where my passion and interests lie.

My fiancée and I brave weather to watch the Chiefs play

Above all my work, my greatest interest lies with my fiancée. I met her six years ago in college, and for a time, we were together. However, out of lack of responsibility, we broke things off. We did not reconnect until three years later, but I still thought about her. I could not help but wonder about how she was doing or where she was in life. Many friends of mine reminded me of my position and made mention that she moved on. Nonetheless, my curiosity ended after she messaged during a bad date and the rest is history. While this article is not about how I met my fiancée or how she makes me a better person, but it is about why we cannot help our emotions or interests. They come naturally to us, and I cannot help but feel impassioned and encouraged to write about Grant in the Overland, Petersburg, and Appomattox Campaigns.

Many great historians have written about these campaigns, but there are still gaps that need to be filled. It is my goal and hopes to fill those gaps in my dissertation and later work. I adore Kansas City and her historical gems, but it is not enough for me. My financial portfolio continues to build, and the more it does, the more battlefields I will visit. I write this article from the perspective of a relatively young and humbled historian. I am genuinely thankful for those who helped me along the way, but there is still much I need to learn. No matter how much others try and dissuade me; otherwise, I will continue to study the many and complex battles of 1864 in Virginia.

Nathan Provost is a US History teacher at Crossroads Preparatory Academy in Missouri. Currently, he is working towards a doctorate in History through Liberty University. Previously he received a Masters in Teaching from the University of Central Missouri. Nathan has always had a passion for military history and education because his grandfather was a Korean War veteran and professor. He first discovered his interest in the Civil War when he visited Grant’s headquarters in Florida, Missouri. Since then, Nathan has travelled to various battlefields across the US. Nonetheless, his focus lies on the eastern theatre, and he plans to write more about the Overland and Petersburg campaigns. 

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10 Responses to Writing from the Trans-Mississippi Theatre

  1. John Pryor says:

    I love reading your articulate posts, Nathan, even if I rarely agree with your analysis of Grant! My ancestors fought in the Trans-Mississippi under Price, Van Dorn and Walker. Keep up the great work.

    • Nate says:

      The irony is that mine fought under Samuel Curtis and James Blunt. I am glad you enjoy my pieces, and I will always try and maintain your interest. Hope all is well for you.

      • John Pryor says:

        You don’t have to try, you always do! Hope to meet you in calmer times. Stay well yourself and your family.

  2. Eric Sterner says:

    Don’t sweat the critiques over visiting/not-visiting some sites. Plenty of battlefields have been completely bulldozed or otherwise developed. Locations, landforms, and the like have been obliterated or lost completely. That doesn’t mean they can’t be studied effectively. After all, people still argue over where the Battle of Tuetoborg Forest took place!

  3. I feel we’re in similar boats, Nathan. While there’s surprisingly a lot of Civil War history in Florida and the deep south (Mobile, Louisiana, etc.), and most of my peers in my local roundtables are obsessed with the naval aspects of the war, my heart is on the Virginian battlefields and it can be agonizing some days to not be where the action is. The navy and western theatre battles simply don’t intrigue me as much (though I try to study them evenly), and there are hardly any conferences this far south. At least not any that will give a balanced view of the war.
    Getting your feet on the ground is definitely a plus, but I wouldn’t say it’s the “thing” that has to be done to be an expert or considered legit. There are Civil War historians in Europe that have written books and never stepped foot in the states. Yet, they are well respected for their thorough research, which is something you do in abundance. I know this is advice from a novice, but keep on truckin’ and you’ll get there! It’ll be that much sweeter of a victory once you’re standing where they stood.

  4. Shipdriver says:

    Try visiting the naval battle sites. They are a bit wet. Although I have crossed the tracks of the Alabama and Shenandoah, etc. in the Atlantic and Pacific, there’s not much to see but the sea.

    • Nate says:

      Recently, I have more interest in the navy during the Civil War. One of the best museums I went as a child was the Naval Museum in Virginia (I am unsure if that is what it is called); however, I remember looking over all the Civil War ships. It is a fond memory of mine.

  5. billhenck says:

    Good shout out for the World War I museum. It’s probably the best museum I have ever visited.

  6. Tony Robertson says:

    Byram’s Ford – I had seven relatives in that battle, all Mo natives. Four Union, three Confederate. One in the 3rd Iowa Cavalry (they recruited some locals in garrison at Lebanon, to replace Iowans sent to fight the Santee in 1862). Three in the 8th MSM Cavalry. One in the 8th Mo Cav CSA, and two in the 14th Mo Cav CSA.

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