Sunday, November 13, 2011

Frazier: "THUNDER ACROSS THE SWAMP: The Fight for the Lower Mississippi, February - May 1863"

[Thunder Across the Swamp: The Fight for the Lower Mississippi, February-May 1863 by Donald S. Frazier (State House Press, 2011). Cloth, 56 maps, 123 photos, 75 illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:559/630. ISBN:978-193333744-9 $59.95]

Not completely neglected, the Civil War in southwest Louisiana has received some fine coverage in the literature, from Christopher Pena's detailed history of the 1862 fighting in the Lafourche District to David C. Edmonds' classic account of the 1863 Texas Overland Expedition. However, sandwiched in between these campaigns occurred perhaps the most interesting operation of them all, the 1863 Bayou Teche Campaign. Almost completely overlooked in the literature beyond a deficient work published in the 1970s, the Teche campaign has finally received its due with Donald S. Frazier's Thunder Across the Swamp: The Fight for the Lower Mississippi, February - May 1863, the second volume of the historian's projected four-volume "Louisiana Quadrille".

In the spring of 1863, the two major Union armies in the Mississippi Valley, U.S. Grant's Army of the Tennessee opposite Vicksburg and Nathaniel Banks' Army of the Gulf near New Orleans and Baton Rouge, were embroiled in a debate on how best to cooperate in the capture of Vicksburg and Port Hudson. While it was assumed that one army would detach a large force to aid the other, then combine armies to tackle the remaining post, the generals instead elected to move in opposite directions, Grant east to the Mississippi capital and Banks west up Louisiana's rich Bayou Teche region before turning north to the Red River. Both were ultimately successful.

Combining deep research with lively writing and numerous, highly detailed maps, Thunder Across the Swamp is shining example of the best of modern Civil War campaign history. The federal movement up the Teche was a well conceived combined operation, composed of a direct land attack by Banks' main force against Confederate General Richard Taylor's small army at Fort Bisland and a water-borne turning movement via Grand Lake. Taylor's entire command barely escaped destruction when the federal amphibious force, Cuvier Grover's infantry division, landed at Irish Bend, struck the weak Confederate rear but failed to cut off the enemy escape route. Taylor's army had survived, but on its long retreat almost disintegrated through straggling and desertion. Meanwhile, the Army of the Gulf engaged in large scale property destruction (a prelude to the Overland and Red River campaigns) and extracted a vast amount of supplies from the rich farms and plantations in the region. Gunboats also struck north up the Atchafalaya River and opened communications with Union naval forces above Port Hudson.

In addition to his analysis of General Banks's strategic options and intentions within the wider Union effort to open the Mississippi to navigation, Frazier's operational coverage of the Teche campaign is just as thorough and his tactical battlefield narratives first rate. Skillfully incorporated into the main narrative, participant accounts are numerous and representative of all ranks. The battles of Fort Bisland and Irish Bend and smaller fights at places like Vermilion Bayou, Fort Burton, Washington, and Chenyville, are meticulously recounted at a micro-tactical scale. Readers who revel in regiment and company level battle history are richly rewarded here.  Additionally, the book's cartography, a diverse collection of 56 strategic, operational, and tactical maps, is intimately tied to the text, never leaving the reader lost on the battlefield or on the march. The amount of detail conveyed, in terms of terrain features and unit positions and movements, is immensely satisfying on all counts.

While the book has a few too many typos to escape mention, other complaints are relatively minor.  An explanation of why Bisland was chosen as the main strongpoint of the Confederate defenses on the Teche is not explained. Given how easily it could be (and was) turned by water movement, one suspects it was a concession to non-military concerns, protection for the valuable agricultural resources located upstream.  Also, Banks is perhaps not accorded enough credit for a sound operational plan, one that came within a hair's breadth of bagging Taylor's entire command. On the Confederate side, while the author is justly critical of Henry Sibley's failure to impose march discipline on the retreat from Irish Bend, Taylor's responsibility as overall commander should not be overlooked.

Though one hesitates to label any study definitive, in a military historical context, Thunder Across the Swamp approaches that level as closely as anyone should care to wish.  Also, in terms of informational depth and quality of presentation, the book significantly raises the bar of reader expectation for the series. If things continue as they are going, volumes 3 and 4 will be major events in the publishing of Civil War Trans-Mississippi theater military history. In a time when cost cutting too often results in history books with significant material and presentational deficiencies, Frazier and State House Press ought to be congratulated for holding nothing back.  Thunder Across the Swamp brilliantly bridges a significant gap in Louisiana Civil War military historiography and is deserving of the highest of accolades.


Other CWBA reviews of State House/McWhiney titles:
* Campaign for Wilson's Creek: The Fight for Missouri Begins
* Love and War: The Civil War Letters and Medicinal Book of Augustus V. Ball
* Fire In The Cane Field: The Federal Invasion of Louisiana and Texas, January 1861 - January 1863

4 comments:

  1. James McCorryNovember 13, 2011

    Should be a major award winner in the Civil War field.As far as binding, printing,and size of font other publishers should take note. it is easy on the eyes to read. Many Civil Warriors are in their sixties and older.Hope the other 2 books in the series come out soon. Do you know of any other works on the Trans-Mississippi that are works in progress. I heard Bill Shea is working on a biography of Gen. Samuel R CURTIS. THANKS - JAMES PS A GREAT BLOG-ALWAYS INFORMATIVE,ENJOYABLE, AND MUST READING.

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  2. Thanks, James. As for projects in the works, Citadel Prof. Kyle Sinisi is still working on a military history of the 1864 Price Raid. William Piston is apparently doing a Springfield, MO battle study with another author. I don't know if it will ever see the light of day, but Michael Gillespie has been working on a Lexington siege book for years.

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  3. I'm a little surprised. I thought the original book in the Quadrille, Fire in the Cane Field, was rather shallow.

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  4. I wouldn't use the word "shallow" to describe it, but it did encompass a lot of ground well covered by other writers, so I wasn't expecting much. Covering a period of 2 years in only 350 pages, I rather thought of it as an introductory setup to the series with the hope that Vol. 2 would take it to the next level. IMO, my trust was not misplaced.

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