Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Mitcham: "RICHARD TAYLOR AND THE RED RIVER CAMPAIGN OF 1864"

[ Richard Taylor and the Red River Campaign of 1864 by Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr. (Pelican, 2012). Hardcover, illustrations, maps, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. 384 pp. ISBN:9781455616336 $26.95]

Given the dearth of coverage for many Trans-Mississippi theater campaigns and battles, it is somewhat surprising that the 1864 Red River Campaign has been the subject of a large number of single volume overviews. The latest is Samuel Mitcham’s Richard Taylor and the Red River Campaign of 1864.

Launched in the early months of 1864, the campaign was conducted along two main axes of advance -- a combined army-navy movement up the Red River itself (led by General Nathaniel Banks and Admiral David Porter against General Richard Taylor’s small Confederate army) and Union general Frederick Steele’s corp-sized Camden Expedition opposed by a handful of cavalry divisions commanded by General Sterling Price. Both wings were aimed at Shreveport, Louisiana. Banks’s vanguard received a severe check by Taylor’s command at Mansfield (Sabine Crossroads) on April 8, but, even though the federals recovered enough to stop the Confederates cold the very next day at Pleasant Hill, the Union army commander never regained the initiative and retreated. The complete withdrawal of Union army and navy forces from the Red River Valley was successful, but not without significant loss in manpower and ships, all inflicted by Taylor’s aggressively led but vastly inferior force in a series of skirmishes and small battles. Meanwhile, the bulk of the Confederate infantry was redirected toward Steele’s Camden army. After decisive victories against federal foraging detachments at Poison Springs and Marks’s Mills forced a Union retreat, the southern army was repulsed by Steele’s rear guard at Jenkins’ Ferry, enabling the latter’s escape and ending the campaign.

The Red River Campaign narrative has been well established by the research and publications of historians and writers like Ludwell Johnson, Gary Joiner, William Brooksher, Jeffrey Prushankin, Michael Forsyth, Ed Bearss, Steven Mayeux, Steve Bounds, and Curtis Milbourn. Mitcham’s writing differs from the accepted line of interpretation in only minor ways and he does incorporate recent groundbreaking work (e.g. Gary Joiner’s research into the hydrological aspects of the campaign), but there’s essentially nothing new here for seasoned readers. The bibliography is composed entirely of printed sources, with some notable omissions (Bounds and Milbourn’s series of excellent North & South magazine articles among the most striking of these), and the lack of any archival research is surprising given the author’s background as a professional historian and university professor. More troubling is the large number of errors, outdated interpretations, and undocumented assertions. The most egregious of these is Mitcham’s perpetuation of the myth that tens of thousands of “Black Confederates” served in the southern armies as full-fledged soldiers. While the subject itself is only tangentially related to the story (the author contending that 8% or more of Taylor’s army was made up of black soldiers), the entire section comprises an embarrassing litany of wholly discredited ‘facts’, casting a pall over the credibility of the entire book.

There are presentational flaws as well. Many of the illustrations are blurry, and the maps, while plentiful, are sterile affairs of minimal usefulness beyond pointing out specific geographical locations to readers unfamiliar with the region. The book is engagingly written and, for the battles fought, generally jibes with the rest of the literature, but the number of errors of fact and interpretation are too much to overlook, especially when no new information is offered and so many superior works already exist. Readers interested in the subject are best off seeking out the scholarship of Joiner and Johnson for Red River operations and Bearss and Forsyth for the Camden Expedition. The finest work examining the role of Richard Taylor in the campaign, especially in the context of the general's contentious relationship with his superior Edmund Kirby Smith, is that of Jeffrey Prushankin. Finally, as no book length studies for exist the major battles of the Red River wing, this reviewer would refer readers to the magazine articles of Curtis Milbourn and Steve Bounds.

[this review first appeared in slightly different form in On Point Magazine, the quarterly journal of the Army Historical Foundation]

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