Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Review - "Confederate Generals in the Trans-Mississippi, Volume 3: Essays on America's Civil War" by Hewitt & Schott, eds.

[Confederate Generals in the Trans-Mississippi, Volume 3: Essays on America's Civil War edited by Lawrence Lee Hewitt and Thomas E. Schott (University of Tennessee Press, 2019). Cloth, maps, photos, notes, appendix, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xxiv,272/398. ISBN:978-1-62190-454-0. $64.95]

The very vastness that made the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department so difficult to conquer made it just as troublesome to defend. This strategic conundrum, added to the region's inadequate railroad transportation, dispersed population, paltry industrial capacity, and distant isolation from the central government, made commanding armies there an undesirable option for many otherwise ambitious Confederate officers. Long considered the dumping ground for the South's high-ranking incompetents, the Trans-Mississippi certainly had no Robert E. Lee but then again neither did the western theater. As the other volumes in University of Tennessee Press's Confederate Generals in the Trans-Mississippi series have done, the eight essays in Confederate Generals in the Trans-Mississippi, Volume 3: Essays on America's Civil War do effectively remind us that the department's command structure possessed a mixture of talent and mediocrity perhaps not so different from those of the other two main theaters of war.

The essays in the series typically fall into two main categories: summary treatments of entire Civil War careers (essentially mini-biographies) or analyses of command performances during specific campaigns or other more tightly focused periods of time. The first three chapters in Volume 3 can be placed in the former group. Nearly all accounts of the Civil War career of Earl Van Dorn are negative at their core, often harshly so, and Joseph Dawson's opening essay is no different. At least in terms of evaluating its subject's strengths and weaknesses, Dawson's assessment of Van Dorn is fairly close to that of the general's most recent biographer, Arthur Carter, though Dawson is less impressed than most with the Mississippian's potential as a high-ranking cavalry leader. Dawson makes a good point that all the qualities of Van Dorn's personal behavior and generalship that contemporaries and later historians alike would scorn were not apparent in early 1862. On paper, President Davis's choice of Van Dorn to lead the Trans-Mississippi's primary army was a very good one. The general possessed the West Point background that Davis preferred and already had experience in a departmental-scale leadership role (in Texas in 1861). Just as important, Van Dorn had a proven ability to get along well with state governors and other civil authorities (though this reputation would be completely wrecked in the aftermath of the Pea Ridge defeat).

Another general with many critics and few friends is Hamilton P. Bee. Bee spent much of the war performing undistinguished service along the Texas-Mexico border before becoming embroiled in heated debates related to his actions during the 1864 Red River Campaign. Perhaps best known as the brother of General Barnard Bee, Hamilton Bee's own much longer Civil War career is also primarily associated with a single controversial battlefield moment. With Union general Nathaniel Banks's retreating army seemingly trapped by his Confederate pursuers within the "island" formed by the Cane and Red rivers, Bee responded to an enemy detachment approaching his left flank via a little-used ford by withdrawing from his blocking position overlooking Monett's Ferry. Roundly criticized for prematurely abandoning a critically important strongpoint before being forced off of it, Bee never lived down accusations of misbehavior under fire and most of the blame for Banks's escape was laid at his feet. Article writer Richard Holloway presents multiple contemporary views on this key event in Bee's career, but curiously does not offer his own opinion. Though criticism of Bee is warranted, it seems difficult to believe that Banks would not have been able to force his way through the relatively thin Confederate cordon.

Much better regarded was the Civil War career of James Fagan, the subject of Stuart Sanders's chapter. In it Sanders evenhandedly traces the ups and downs of Fagan's rise from infantry regiment commander to cavalry major general. The article constructs a reasonable case for regarding Fagan, who was more solid than spectacular, as one of the theaters more dependable Confederate generals. In seeking to explain why a general of Fagan's rank and service remains relatively obscure, the writer's assertions that Fagan was consistently overshadowed by Missouri's more colorful Jo Shelby and was given few opportunities for independent distinction while serving under some of the Confederacy's most mediocre commanders (ex. Theophilus Holmes at Helena and Sterling Price during the 1863 Little Rock and 1864 Missouri campaigns) seem reasonable as contributing factors. Fagan's later Republican Party activities didn't help to enhance his reputation in the postwar South either.

Jeffrey Prushankin's essay examines the first year of Edmund Kirby Smith's leadership of the Trans-Mississippi Department, a tumultuous period that any commander would have found difficult to manage. When the department became completely isolated from the rest of the Confederacy in mid-1863, Smith found himself bound by irreconcilable military and political duties and objectives, the carrying out of which made him unpopular among military subordinates and state governors alike. Prushankin effectively counters contemporary critics of Kirby Smith who claimed that he had no strategy. As he astutely points out, the truth was quite the contrary. Envisioning few opportunities for fruitful offensive action, Kirby Smith adopted a reactive posture that would seek to draw enemy incursions into the department's vast interior, trading space for time to concentrate Confederate forces and strike the enemy at the moment when their supply lines were stretched to the breaking point. The problem was one of perception. Disgruntled district commanders came to see their chief as lacking initiative and political leaders became angered at the apparent willingness of the department's highest-ranking Confederate representative to cede vast areas of their respective states to serve purely military ends. Prushankin's view that Kirby Smith saw, for better or for worse, the Arkansas-Missouri front as the department's proper military center of gravity seems accurate, even though it hindered the general's purposes that this northern front held his two worst district commanders (Holmes and Price) while his two best ones (Taylor in Louisiana and Magruder in Texas) assumed secondary roles.

The second of three contributions by Richard Holloway, the William R. Boggs chapter examines that general's stint as Edmund Kirby Smith's chief of staff.  The article provides some information about Boggs's official duties as well as some details regarding his own initiatives directed toward improving communications, but it is probably best valued as offering insights into the inner workings of the military family of the department commander. Over time Boggs came to be quite critical of his chief and took Richard Taylor's side when the initially cordial relationship between Kirby Smith and Taylor broke down for good in 1864. More relevant to Boggs's own situation was the influence of civilian Dr. Sol Smith, a close friend of Kirby Smith and the person he apparently really wanted as his chief of staff, in the military decision making of the department commander. As the writer notes, many of the negative things Boggs wrote about Kirby Smith were undoubtedly colored by aftersight.

In Volume 2, Curtis Milbourn wrote about Confederate cavalry general Tom Green's 1864 Red River Campaign contributions. Here Milbourn goes back to the beginning of Green's rise to prominence in western Louisiana, among other things offering an excellent account of the general's key role in helping General Taylor's command survive the 1863 Bayou Teche campaign and the battles at Bisland and Irish Bend. Before his death in action at Blair's Landing in April 1864, Green proved himself among the Trans-Mississippi's most aggressive, reliable, and consistently successful Confederate generals. With Odie Faulk's 1963 study still the standard biography, Green's life and Civil War career is certainly due for an updated treatment.

Texas's John A. Wharton spent the bulk of the war fighting in the western theater, where he steadily ascended the cavalry's high command before his inability to get along with Joseph Wheeler led to a Trans-Mississippi transfer. Paul Scott's chapter traces Wharton's life, his Civil War career, and his untimely end at the hands of fellow Confederate officer John R. Baylor. Appointed by General Kirby Smith to replace Tom Green after the latter's death at Blair's Landing, Wharton led the Confederate cavalry pursuit of Banks's retreating army for the rest of the campaign, though sources tracing his activities are limited. The altercation that led to his death stemmed from a personal dispute with Baylor related to Wharton's direction of the Battle of Yellow Bayou. Overall, Scott's essay builds a strong argument that Wharton is deserving of higher recognition as one of the Confederacy's better untutored citizen-generals. Unfortunately, as the writer acknowledges, gaining a much deeper understanding of the man and his contributions will be difficult given that none of Wharton's papers survived the war.

Richard Holloway's concluding chapter revisits some of the inaccuracies of Richard Taylor's celebrated Civil War memoir Destruction and Reconstruction, but much of the essay's attention is directed toward a major operation not mentioned in Taylor's book, the desperate late-war Confederate plan to transfer a large proportion of the department's available manpower east across the Mississippi to aid crumbling southern armies there. Recently relieved by Kirby Smith for repeated insubordination, Taylor was appointed head of the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana and the crossed troops would at first be placed under his command. Though the high command feared that attempting to cross the Mississippi would cause wholesale mutinies and desertion among officers and men (and indeed some serious incidents did occur), Holloway provides some contrary evidence that a great many Texans and southern Louisianians were prepared to accept the move if they felt that it might help win the war. Unlike most historians, the author does not present the operation as inherently impossible and persuasively sees its failure as multi-factorial in nature. No risky operation of that scale could have succeeded without the full backing of the department commander and that command will was distinctly lacking in Kirby Smith, who was loath to lose many of his best troops (especially to Richard Taylor). A clear lack of operational secrecy, logistical limitations of all kinds, an inability to coordinate the timing of diversionary measures of sufficient scale, and the strong presence of the Union Navy also conspired against the possibility of success. With most accounts dismissing the planned operation as military fantasy, it was nice to find a serious examination of it.

Another excellent biographical anthology worthy of unreserved recommendation, Confederate Generals in the Trans-Mississippi, Volume 3 ends the series on a high note. One might hope also that the completed trilogy will inspire another editorial team to embark on a Trans-Mississippi equivalent to what SIU Press's Civil War Campaigns in the West series and UNC Press's Military Campaigns of the Civil War series have done and continue to do for western and eastern theater military event coverage.


  1. I have always enjoyed compilations like this, but the sad truth is that, even at reasonable prices (and this one is very steep) they just don't sell very well. This collection covers mostly obscure men who fought in a theater into which 95% of students of the war rarely wade, and you see how the problem of sales is compounded.

    Still, this sort of work is invaluable and I wish more readers would expand their horizons and delve into it.

    1. Yes, it is but a dream. Things like CPP's Unwritten Chapters of the Civil War West of the River series is probably something no one else would even consider doing.

  2. Holloway's depth of knowledge is an inspiration to those studying all aspects of Civil War history. He inspires the reader to want to know more. Holloway's facts, facts, facts, approach to his research is admirable. More information is needed on the secondary and lesser known figures of this period and these essays help provide that needed history.


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