[ Fire in the Cane Field: The Federal Invasion of Louisiana and Texas, January 1861-January 1863 by Donald S. Frazier (State House Press, 2009). Cloth, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:353/397. ISBN:978-1-933337-36-4 $39.95]
Donald S. Frazier's Fire in the Cane Field is the first of a planned four volume history of the Civil War in Louisiana and parts of Texas. Moving quickly through the military and political proceedings spanning the 24 months following the secession of the Deep South, this work takes care of the series's necessary background material [later volumes will cover periods spanning months rather than years], while at the same time detailing Louisiana and Texas military campaigns fought during the nine months following the April 1862 fall of New Orleans.
The U.S. army and navy's capture of the Crescent City segues into the book's more substantive focus on the Lafourche District, the rich sugar-producing region roughly bounded by the Achafalaya River on the west and the Mississippi to the north and east. The district was invaded and occupied by the Federal army soon after the capture of New Orleans, a move that inflicted heavy economic damage and freed thousands of slaves months before the formal Emancipation Proclamation. Frazier outlines Gulf Department commander Benjamin Butler's struggle to solve the problem of what to do with these refugee families.
However, with the arrival of General Richard Taylor to command the Confederate forces, this Federal occupation would be contested. Frazier relates in sufficient particulars the planning and execution of each side's Lafourche operations, which resulted in the Des Allemands Raid and the fight at Bonnet Carre. The narrative then moves west to the U.S. blockade and capture of Galveston, following as well the reorganization of the Sibley/Green brigade [previously roughed up in the New Mexico Campaign] in Texas. This cavalry unit will play an expanding role in ensuing volumes.
With the Confederates preoccupied by the Union threat in Texas, Butler in turn launched a fresh Lafourche offensive, commanded by General Godfrey Weitzel. The battle at Georgia Landing (or Labadieville) routed the Confederates, pushing the southern forces across the Achafalaya at Brashear City and beyond. Butler was recalled, to be replaced by Nathaniel Banks. The book ends with the dramatic Confederate recapture of Galveston on New Year's Day 1863 by a combined army-navy force commanded by John Bankhead Magruder, as well as the anticipated return of the Sibley/Green brigade to the Lafourche.
While the tactical detail is more than sufficient, the book's accounts of the above operations are clearly not meant to be definitive in nature. In addition to his own manuscript research, Frazier utilized a synthetic approach, building on fine specialized secondary works created by previous writers1, a repetition of which was properly deemed unnecessary.
With contributions to numerous Civil War and Mexican War books, Frazier has established a solid reputation as a cartographer. The two dozen or more maps in Fire In The Cane Field are excellent. Unlike most military studies, there is a proper mix of strategic, operational, and tactical level maps in the book. The operational maps, both lavishly informative and beautiful to look at, are a particular bright spot.
Students most in tune with the published literature will find many of volume one's tactical summaries and analyses to be familiar, but more casual readers will likely be exposed to many of these actions for the first time. However, both readerships will likely find Frazier's operational discussions to be composed of fresh ideas and interpretations. Texas and SE Louisiana were not directly connected by rail, but the book demonstrates well the strategic relationship between the two regions, with military operations in one area directly aiding or hindering efforts in the other. For example, the Union lodgement at Galveston pinned down available Confederate forces around Houston, allowing a freer Federal hand in the Lafourche.
Fire in the Cane Field is highly recommended, both as a standalone work and as a fine lead in to volume two's focus on the almost completely neglected 1863 Bayou Teche Campaign2. If the demonstrated content quality, lavish illustration, and promising depth can be maintained throughout, Frazier's series will prove to be one of the most exciting and original Trans-Mississippi publishing projects to date.
1 - Among them, book length studies by Edward Cotham (Galveston and Sabine Pass) and Christopher Pena (Scarred By War: Civil War in Southeast Louisiana).
2 - Thunder Across the Swamp: The Fight for the Lower Mississippi, February 1863-May 1863 is scheduled for a 2010 release.
[review will also appear in On Point magazine with some minor changes]