Monday, May 28, 2007

Joiner: "Through the Howling Wilderness: The 1864 Red River Campaign and Union Failure in the West"

[Through the Howling Wilderness: The 1864 Red River Campaign and Union Failure in the West by Gary D. Joiner. (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 2006). Pp. 224, $39.95, Hardcover, photos, illustrations, maps, notes, appendices. ISBN10: 1-57233-5440-0 and ISBN13: 978-1-57233-544-8)]

With the publication of his second book length Red River manuscript, Gary Joiner is cementing his position as one of the leading authorities on this important 1864 Trans-Mississippi military campaign. What sets Joiner’s work apart from that of previous historians is his in-depth analysis of the geography of the Red River Valley and of the Confederate fortifications and engineering projects designed for its defense. He argues that these Confederate efforts were instrumental in turning back the Federal amphibious advance. This view certainly provides a counterweight to the campaign literature’s prevailing wisdom in its assessment of the primary reason behind the Union defeat, namely Banks’s command failures. In his writing, Joiner certainly joins the chorus of harsh critics of Banks’s generalship, but his willingness to more deeply examine the ‘other side’ has led to some startling discoveries, all of which are detailed in his new book Through the Howling Wilderness.

Because the two are similarly structured and share so many thematic elements, it would perhaps be most helpful to review this book partly in the context of Joiner’s previous manuscript One Damn Blunder from Beginning to End (reviewed in North & South Volume 6 #6). With his latest work, Joiner has included more background material and he’s also written a chapter at the end analyzing the findings of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. The author’s assessment of the validity of the information contained in both reports is evenhanded, yet I was surprised that Joiner did not find it an intriguing possibility that Banks’s lone defender on the committee, Rep. Gooch of Massachusetts, authored the minority report’s impassioned defense of Banks mainly to curry political favor. Although somewhat more tactical detail is included in Through the Howling Wilderness, the campaign’s battles are still dealt with in very brief summaries. However, other common elements are greatly expanded. The construction of the defenses of Shreveport (the nerve center of the department) and other sites downriver are described in the text in minute fashion. The system devised by Confederate engineers to dramatically lower the river’s depth in case of attack (one of the important discoveries mentioned above) has received its most complete treatment to date here. Additionally, much more space is devoted to the campaign’s Arkansas front.

Numerous photographs, illustrations, and 23 maps accompany the text, appreciably enhancing the value of the book. The maps vary rather widely in quality and level of detail (a particularly beautiful one depicts the defenses of Shreveport) but they clearly serve as an asset to the book overall. Several appendices, comprised of letters, order of battle information, a listing of U.S. navy vessels involved in the campaign, and an event timeline, are also thoughtfully included.

In the final assessment, readers of all stripes should find this book useful. Those seeking an introductory history will gain a suitably broad understanding of the campaign. At the other end of the spectrum, dedicated Red River students already familiar with the campaign’s literature—including author Gary Joiner’s previous work—will likely discover enough new information to satisfy them.

[Since this book's publication, Joiner has been a very busy man, editing or co-editing two volumes, Little to Eat and Thin Mud to Drink: Letters, Diaries, and Memoirs from the Red River Campaigns, 1863-1864 & Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862, and authoring an upcoming naval study Mr. Lincoln's Brown Water Navy: The Mississippi Squadron.]

(The above review is reprinted with the permission of North and South Magazine, originally appearing in vol.10 #1 pg. 93, reviewed by Andrew Wagenhoffer)


  1. Why do you think that Gooch's report was intended to curry political favor?

  2. I don't necessarily, just think the notion worthy of consideration. Banks was a powerful Massachusetts politician before he became a high ranking general and Gooch was a U.S. Representative from the same state.

    Gooch was a member of the state Constitution Convention in 1853 (Banks was convention president) and when Banks resigned his 7th district seat in the U.S. House of Rep in 1858, Gooch succeeded him. Whether he achieved this with significant support from Banks, I have no idea, but it's certainly possible.

    Thanks for writing,


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