Wednesday, October 22, 2014

"Polignac's Texas Brigade"

I scrapped plans to write about Alwyn Barr's classic Polignac's Texas Brigade (Texas Gulf Coast Historical Association, 1964) after Jane's post from last month, but after reading it again I decided good things are worth repeating.

nice hat, Camille
The book is a marvel of compact scholarly narrative. In only 57 pages, you get an entire unit history, from the July 1862 brigading of the 22nd, 31st, and 34th Texas Cavalry regiments (others would be added to this core later on) to disbandment in 1865. Barr's account follows the brigade to Indian Territory, Arkansas, Louisiana, and back to Texas, the dismounted cavalrymen wearing out their footwear marching all over the place and fighting numerous battles and skirmishes along Bayou Teche and the Red, Ouchita, Atchafalaya, and Mississippi rivers. The Texans' biggest moments came at Bayou Bourbeau in 1863 and at Mansfield and Yellow Bayou during the 1864 Red River Campaign.

Acknowledging problems with morale, desertion, and leadership, Barr does not sugarcoat the picture. He attributes high desertion rates to several factors, among them poor logistical support, demoralization from being dismounted (a common refrain with Trans-Mississippi cavalry units), and the brigade's lukewarm Confederate recruitment base of North Texas. Unmentioned is another consideration, that of the servicemen's families' proximity to those parts of Texas frequently subjected to raiding by roving bands of Kiowa and Comanche, as well as the uncertain relationship with the tribes across the border in Indian Territory.

Barr, a Civil War Texas expert who has authored numerous seminal journal articles, here is able to craft a complete history that is brief but feels more substantial than many modern Civil War unit histories many times its own modest length. In addition to the author's skill at condensing narrative, the depth of research is surely another element in the perception. In many instances, there are more primary sources cited in the footnotes than sentences on the page.

Monographs of similar scope were published in the 60s and 70s by outfits like the Texas Gulf Coast Historical Association, Texas Western Press, Hill College Press, and others, but it's a testament to the enduring value of Polignac's Texas Brigade that it remains in print after 50 years. The 1998 edition from Texas A&M University Press adds a very informative historiographical update (written by Barr) listing and assessing related studies published between 1964 and that date. It is this version that is still widely available and high recommended reading for all students of the Civil War in the Trans-Mississippi.

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