Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Frazier: "BLOOD ON THE BAYOU: Vicksburg, Port Hudson, and the Trans-Mississippi"

[Blood on the Bayou: Vicksburg, Port Hudson, and the Trans-Mississippi by Donald S. Frazier (State House Press, 2015). Cloth, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:415/484. ISBN:978-1-933337-62-3 $39.99]

Blood on the Bayou is the third volume of historian Donald Frazier's "Louisiana Quadrille," a series that began in 2009 with the lofty goal of comprehensively documenting in four installments the military campaigns and battles fought in Trans-Mississippi Louisiana1. Since then, progress has been steady and impressive. Time spans have contracted at each stage with Blood on the Bayou  detailing events that occurred over only a two month interval between the end of May and middle of July 18632. As the subtitle suggests, operations in Louisiana during this period were aimed at relieving the twin sieges of Vicksburg and Port Hudson.

After the Port Royal Expedition of 1861 and the occupation of Hilton Head and surrounding sea islands, the Union invasion of the lower Mississippi Valley in early 1862 represented the next most substantial penetration of those Deep South regions having the most highly concentrated slave populations. As in South Carolina, Union military authorities in Louisiana were immediately confronted with an overwhelming human crisis, but also an opportunity to further the Union cause while at the same time striking at the heart of secession. In addition to using the famous WPA interviews and earlier sources to offer readers some insight into slave life on Louisiana sugar plantations, Blood on the Bayou also covers 1862-63 policy debates over how best to wrest control of the slave population from local planters and Confederate authorities and place ex-slaves at the disposal of the Union military and federal treasury instead. Other books and articles have studied in great detail the establishment of contract labor agreements on U.S. leased "abandoned" plantations and the recruitment of black troops in the region, but discussion here provides necessary contextual support for what is otherwise primarily a work and series focused on military campaigns.  In contrast to other theaters, black troops would make an early impact in the Mississippi River Valley. USCT formations made a material contribution at Port Hudson and many additional units were just forming when the Confederates struck Union positions on the west side of the Mississippi in mid-1863.

Unfortunately for the Confederate cause, both relief operations [the campaigns of General James G. Walker's Texas Division in NE Louisiana and General Richard Taylor's small but powerful combined arms command from Texas and Louisiana in the Lafourche District] were based on potentially grave misconceptions. Walker's Milliken's Bend and Young's Point attacks were meant to discomfit Grant's army in Mississippi but the Army of the Tennessee was no longer dependent upon its Louisiana lines of communication and supply. Worse, the river enclaves were better defended than the Confederates were led to believe. In SW Louisiana, Taylor's hope that recapturing the LaFourche and threatening New Orleans and surrounding Mississippi River traffic might frighten General Banks enough to curtail or even abandon his Port Hudson campaign would prove entirely unfounded. At Milliken's Bend (June 7) and Fort Butler (June 28) both campaigns would also demonstrate the futility of attacking well prepared Union river fortifications backed by naval support, lessons that went unlearned to disastrous effect at Helena, Arkansas on July 4.

All of Frazier's books are deeply researched and this one is no exception, his narrative a seamless tapestry of military, civilian, and slave accounts. The author begins with a solid account of Milliken's Bend3 before moving on to events involving General Mouton's command in Point Coupee Parish opposite Port Hudson and in the Lafourche District. Frazier does a fine job of describing the topography of the region and how the Confederates would exploit its features to seize the district and its rail system. The two pronged operation, Colonel James P. Major's cavalry raid down through Point Coupee Parish to seize the railroad between Brashear City and New Orleans (a June 20-21 would be fought near Lafourche Crossing) combined with Taylor, Mouton, and Tom Green's brilliantly coordinated June 23 amphibious assault across Berwick Bay and Grand Lake [an impressive joint feat of arms that deserves greater historical renown], secured mountains of munitions and supplies at Brashear City and forced a panicked Union withdrawal back to New Orleans.

After clearing the railroad, the Confederates set up river interdiction points above New Orleans, in the process of which Tom Green conducted a badly mismanaged attack on Donaldsonville's Fort Butler. Unfazed by these aggressive movements against his army's rear, Banks soon secured the capture of Port Hudson and turned his attention toward retaking the Lafourche and destroying Taylor. Things kicked off badly for the federals, with Green's cavalry recovering quickly from their bloody Fort Butler debacle to surprisingly rout three of Banks's veteran infantry brigades at Kock's Plantation on July 13. The writing was on the wall for the Confederates in the Lafourche, however, and Taylor skillfully extricated his forces from the district, recrossing the bay and escaping to safety before the tardy Union navy could arrive to cut off his retreat.

In terms of interesting leader assessments, Frazier's view of Mouton as a good regimental commander but lacking the drive and initiative required of a general entrusted with independent operations is a bit non-traditional. Most historians paint the popular Cajun as a much more capable officer. As much as General Banks has been, and continues to be, ridiculed in the literature, the author offers a strong reminder that the political general's battle plans at Bisland during the Teche Campaign and for clearing the Lafourche after Port Hudson were both very good and failed to annihilate enemy armies (armies by Trans-Mississippi standards) by the barest of margins. Banks never had the 'luck' that Napoleon considered so essential to successful generalship.

Frazier also presents readers with an evocative portrait of the civilian experience during this time, when local citizens were forced to deal with extensive property destruction along with the jarring emotional highs and lows stemming from alternating enemy occupation, Confederate liberation, and Union reoccupation all within a few short weeks. Also highlighted is the plight of the region's newly freed black population, one that suffered greatly when meager Union resources devoted to their care were quickly overtaxed.

Supplementing Frazier's highly detailed and skillfully written battle narratives is a map set both plentiful and informative. The maps do a fine job tracing military movements, locating regiments and batteries on the battlefield, and identifying the most important terrain features, but other parts of the fighting landscape like tree lines and underlying swamp lands and cultivated fields appear faded almost to the point of invisibility. Wish list items include a more thorough clean up of the many typographical errors present in the text and an order of battle collection. Though the clashes are small enough for readers to tease out most of this information on their own, having the OBs compiled together in a detailed appendix would have been helpful. But these are minor niggles and don't detract from the significant accomplishments outlined above.

The "Quadrille"'s penultimate entry, Blood on the Bayou continues the series's well established fine form. Frazier's books comprise an outstanding original contribution to Louisiana and Trans-Mississippi theater Civil War historiography. One looks forward to the end of the project with equal parts anticipation and regret.

1 - There is a strong dual focus on Texas and Louisiana in the stage-setting Volume 1 Fire in the Cane Field: The Federal Invasion of Louisiana and Texas, January 1861-January 1863, but Thunder Across the Swamp: The Fight for the Lower Mississippi, February - May 1863 and Volume 3 are solidly centered on Civil War events within the Pelican State.
2 - This leaves a lot to cover in Volume 4, including major campaigns like the Fall 1863 Texas Overland Expedition and the 1864 Red River Campaign.
3 - For a wider treatment, see Linda Barnickel's award winning study Milliken's Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory.

1 comment:

  1. Chris EvansMay 07, 2015

    Great review Drew.

    If you haven't already you must read John De Forest's account of his actions at Port Hudson. It came out originally posthumously in 1946 as 'A Volunteer's Adventures' and it is one of the great first person accounts of a battle action from the Civil War.


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