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Thursday, January 12, 2006

Review: "One Damn Blunder from Beginning to End"

(Reprinted with the permission of North and South Magazine, originally appeared in vol. 6 #6, pp. 90-91, reviewed by Andrew Wagenhoffer)

[One Damn Blunder from Beginning to End: The Red River Campaign of 1864 by Gary Dillard Joiner. (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources Inc., 2003. Pp. 198, $17.95, Paper. 16 Maps. ISBN 0-8420-2936-2)]

In March of 1864 Union forces led by Major General Nathaniel Banks launched a massive three-pronged land and riverine assault up Louisiana’s Red River valley that eventually included over 40,000 soldiers and 60 vessels. The capture of Shreveport, the capital of Confederate Louisiana and a major supply and logistics center in the Trans-Mississippi theater, was the operation’s main military objective. Economic and political goals included the confiscation of vast amounts of cotton for starving Eastern mills and the further establishment of a Federally-controlled state government in Louisiana and perhaps East Texas as well. Partisan politics, greed, and infighting doomed the campaign seemingly from the start and the result was a complete disaster. Historian and cartographer Gary Joiner’s One Damn Blunder From Beginning to End provides the reader with a concise narrative history of this important but often overlooked campaign.

Since the publication in 1958 of Ludwell Johnson’s classic Politics and Cotton, several modern campaign histories of similar breadth of scope have been written. None are exhaustive, but what sets Joiner’s work apart is his mastery of the area’s geography. The author is at his best when describing and analyzing the peculiarities of the Red River and its tributaries along with their crucial impact on the operations of Admiral Porter’s Union fleet. Where the book falls flat is in the descriptions of the land battles, particularly the showcase battles of Mansfield and Pleasant Hill. Although a general understanding of the fighting is enhanced by the book’s inclusion of plentiful maps drawn by the author, the battle accounts are a bit too brief even for an overview.

Another way in which One Damn Blunder improves upon previous overview histories of the campaign is in its use of recently uncovered information, which is spread liberally throughout the book. As examples, the means applied by Confederate engineers to temporarily divert the flow of the Red River in case of attack are fascinating and the author provides a rare in-depth look at the military defenses of Shreveport.

Though conventional, Joiner’s analysis of the campaign is logical and covers all of the important points. The author casts an equally critical eye towards all levels of leadership on both sides. The result is a well-balanced account that avoids assigning all the blame for the defeat to the popular villain, General Banks. As is clearly illustrated in the book, the direction of the Union effort in the campaign from Lincoln on down was a credit to no one. On the other side, Confederate department head Edmund Kirby Smith made several crucial blunders that limited the extent of the overall Southern victory. In the end, Richard Taylor and Union engineer Joseph Bailey are perhaps the only major players who exit the campaign with their reputations enhanced.

Although students of the Red River Campaign will be familiar with author Gary Joiner’s interpretation of events, enough new (or rarely known) information is provided that enhances our understanding of this important 1864 operation. The same cannot be said for many of the campaign overviews published today. One Damn Blunder is highly recommended reading for anyone interested in the Trans-Mississippi theater and 1864 campaigns in general.

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