Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Robertson: "THE RED RIVER CAMPAIGN AND ITS TOLL: 69 Bloody Days in Louisiana, March - May 1864"

[The Red River Campaign and Its Toll: 69 Bloody Days in Louisiana, March - May 1864 by Henry O. Robertson (McFarland 800-253-2187, 2016). Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:187/219. ISBN:978-1-4766-6378-4. $29.95]

An exhaustive treatment of the 1864 Red River Campaign does not exist, nor have any book length studies of the operation's major battles at Mansfield and Pleasant Hill been published, but the overall topic has been far from ignored. Published in 1958 and still in print today, Ludwell Johnson's Red River Campaign: Politics and Cotton in the Civil War is the seminal work on the subject and remains a favorite among scholars and general readers alike. After a post-Johnson gap decades in length, a steady stream of scholarly and popular overviews emerged on the scene, among them works by Gary Joiner, William Brooksher, Michael Forsyth, Samuel Mitcham, and Curt Anders, all similar in breadth but of a decidedly mixed quality. This collection of compact overviews has become something of a staple of the secondary literature of the campaign, and one author (thankfully one of the best of the group) has published three books within the category! The newest entry in this line is Henry Robertson's The Red River Campaign and Its Toll: 69 Bloody Days in Louisiana, March - May 1864. While it continues the tradition of owing much to Johnson's pioneering work, Robertson's work has several notable aspects that set it apart from the others. Most broadly, the book has a social history focus that the others lack.

Instead of simply repeating the work of Johnson and others on the larger political and economic origins of the campaign, Robertson delves much more into the slave economy and local politics of the Red River Valley before and during the Civil War, specifically Avoyelles, Caddo, Desoto, Natchitoches, Winn, Sabine, and Rapides parishes. The book summarizes the pre-war commercial development of the region while also documenting wartime disruption, from the ravages of guerrilla warfare to all manner of property seizure and loss, including most prominently the targeting of stored cotton by both Union and Confederate military authorities. While Breckinridge voters were a regional majority in 1860, Robertson's examination of parish election returns and other local records reveals a significant vein of Unionism and pro-slavery opposition to secession in these Cotton Belt parishes. Several prominent planters from the area would be tabbed for leading roles in the state reconstruction government that General Banks hoped to more fully establish upon a successful conclusion to the Red River operation.

Another emphasis of the book is on the widespread property destruction that specifically followed vengeful Union forces, especially the indiscriminate burning and looting perpetrated by A.J. Smith's unrestrained veterans, who wrathfully targeted Confederate and pro-Union civilians alike in the aftermath of the army's frustrating general retreat after apparent victory at Pleasant Hill. The heavy destruction leveled against Alexandria during its occupation is well described, as are the post-war efforts (largely unsuccessful) of local Unionists and foreign citizens to receive compensation from the federal government's Claims Commission for their losses.

The emancipating nature of the Union advance up the Red River is also featured in the book, with thousands of slaves (estimates of total numbers vary widely) leaving valley plantations and flocking to the federal banner. By their example, the presence of black units in Banks's army also encouraged the enlistment of many of these escaped slaves into U.S. ranks.

The major military events of the campaign — the Union capture of Fort DeRussy, the near annihilation of the district's Confederate cavalry at Henderson Hill, the battles of Mansfield and Pleasant Hill, the Union escape at Cane River, the military interlude at Alexandria that witnessed the ingenious escape of the Union river fleet, and the concluding engagements at Mansura and Yellow Bayou — are dutifully recounted, albeit succinctly and in episodic, rather than blow-by-blow, fashion. Conventional in description and analysis, they are largely interesting for the many firsthand accounts integrated into the text, a good number of these not present in earlier narratives. In comparative terms with the rest of the overview literature, the book's account of the clash between opposing forces at Pleasant Grove (fought during the fluid pursuit phase after Mansfield and before Pleasant Hill) is the best of bunch. One of the most controversial turning points in the Louisiana phase of the campaign was General E.K. Smith's decision to divert the bulk of the victorious Confederate infantry to Arkansas, and Robertson (while offering no new arguments that might persuade those holding opposite views, like campaign historian Michael Forsyth and others) does not believe that their retention would have greatly affected the historical course of the Union army and navy's retreat.

The Red River Campaign and Its Toll is recommended reading for every student of the 1864 Red River Campaign. While fresh insights into military events are few, many understudied aspects of the operation are accorded new emphasis and are well presented. With its strong backbone of archival sources, the book is also easily one of the best researched of the campaign's many overview histories that have been published.

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