Friday, June 5, 2009

Forgotten Books: Red River Campaign by Ludwell H. Johnson

(Today is the non-fiction edition of Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten books. For the complete list, head on over to her blog.)

Today, a forgotten book about a forgotten campaign in a war that will never be forgotten.

If you ask anyone what was the largest campaign in the American Civil War that took place west of the Mississippi River, the response would probably be “There were battles west of the Mississippi?” True, they were not as famous as those in Virginia or Tennessee or Pennsylvania but they were important. In fact, you could probably argue that the Red River Campaign, the Confederacy’s last major victory, delayed the end of the war a year.

Ludwell H. Johnson’s book, Red River Campaign: Politics and Cotton in the Civil War, is THE book to read on the subject. To date, there hasn’t been another one mainly since Johnson got it all in a book just under 300 pages. He details all the reasons the Union saw for waging the campaign. The year 1864 was an election year and President Lincoln thought that if he could get Louisiana back into the Union by November, he could count on their votes. Northeast Texas and Shreveport, Louisiana, were major sources of armaments and supplies for the Confederacy. A Union strike in these regions would remove that threat. Cotton was something the Confederacy had in abundance. The Union feared that the CSA would sell the cotton to Europe and, thus, gain much needed funds. Then there was the French in Mexico. Lincoln and his military strategists didn’t want any foreign power to reinforce the South.

For these reasons and more, Union general Halleck planned for an invasion of eastern Louisiana in the spring of 1864. The plan called for Major General Nathaniel P. Banks to take 30,000 Union soldiers up the Red River to Shreveport then west to Tyler, Texas, and Marshall, Texas. Accompanying him was the largest Union navel force ever assembled west of the Mississippi. What could go wrong?

For the Union, everything. The vastly outnumbered Confederation army, under command of Richard Taylor--the son of President Zachary Taylor--retreated along the stagecoach road until he stopped his men, turned, and attacked the Union forces at Mansfield. The narrow road didn’t allow for Banks to bring his forces to bear and the Confederates routed the Union. A day later, at Pleasant Hill, the same thing repeated itself. A few days later, a portion of the Confederate army broke off and high-tailed it north to Arkansas and engaged another part of the Union invasion force. In all cases, the South beat the North.

All of these details and so much more is in Johnson’s book. He provides maps of all the battles so you can get a sense of where and how the armies faced off against each other. I’ll admit that prose isn’t as riveting as, say, James McPherson, Stephen Ambrose, Joseph Ellis, or David McCullough. The bibliography is extensive and includes many primary sources and unit histories.

Speaking of unit histories, the main reason I know this book so well is that I wrote my Masters thesis on the 14th Texas Infantry, one of the members of the Confederate army. The men of my (I’ve taken to calling them “mine” since I studied them back in the 90s) regiment all lived in northeast Texas so they actually accomplished what they set out to do: defend their homes from invasion. And, yet, they still lost. Made for a more interesting thesis despite its convoluted title: “The Best Stuff Which the State Affords”: A Socio- and Economic Portrait of the 14th Texas Infantry in the Civil War. Really, it is.

Ludwell Johnson’s book was the Bible when I researched my thesis. It’ll tell you all you need to know about the Red River Campaign, a truly forgotten story of the Civil War.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Scott-I truly think you should be a university historian. You have such a gift for it.

Scott D. Parker said...

Patti - That was my first choice for a profession. I was all the way past the MA degree, taking PhD courses when I got burned out for the internal crap. Now, I just read and write about history for fun.

David Cranmer said...

Scott, as always interesting facts you've provided and when I was in Louisiana last year I was amazed at the large amount of Civil War history in the area. Being a Yankee we tend to focus on the campaigns in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania etc.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Now that was interesting - I've got to learn more about the Civil War

Chris said...

>>>If you ask anyone what was the largest campaign in the American Civil War that took place west of the Mississippi River, the response would probably be “There were battles west of the Mississippi?”<<<

Love that line. Great review! Patti's right: You have the air of an historian.

Kerby Jackson said...

Good info. here, Scott. You definitely have the air of a historian.

It's nice to see that someone else knows that there were battles taking place pretty far from the "normal front" during the Civil War.

We had a few here locally, most of which tended to start off pretty innocently as patriotic events, only to erupt into violent clashes. These weren't military campaigns, but clashes between two opposing political groups: those who were Pro-Union and those who were Pro-Confederate.

~ Kerby

Scott D. Parker said...

David - When I do visit La., I always want to visit cemeteries and see how the Civil War is commemorated.

Gary - Well, you know, I do have a thesis... Kidding aside, my thesis was an eye-opener in helping to answer the big question, at least for my unit, about the Civil War: was it a rich man's war and a poor man's fight? Come to think of it, I might blog about the 14th TX.

Chris - [Chuckle] I constantly get that blank stare when, say, I meet someone new and the conversation gets around to 'what did you study in college?' and the thesis is the natural end point. I still have my intense passion for history. Now, I just write historical fiction.

Kerby - I am not familiar with clashes on the Pacific coast. I'll have to do some research. Know a good place to start?

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