Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Review - "'May God have Mercy on Us.': The Twenty Days of the Cane River Campaign in Louisiana" by Nash, Taylor, and Whitington

["May God have Mercy on Us.": The Twenty Days of the Cane River Campaign in Louisiana by Weldon Nash, Jr., John Taylor & Mitchel Whitington (23 House Publishing, 2019). Softcover, 10 maps, photos, illustrations, footnotes, site tour, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:123/152. ISBN:978-1-9393063-2-6. $18.95]

The 1864 Red River Campaign encompassing two widely separated fronts in Arkansas and Louisiana was the largest military operation conducted in the Trans-Mississippi during the Civil War. Even without incorporating the political and economic elements that are critical to understanding the campaign's inception, it would be a struggle for any author to comprehensively cover its numerous skirmishes and battles within a single volume of any depth. Yet the middling-sized collection of major secondary works associated with the Red River Campaign consists of little more than that. Though only an overview itself, Ludwell Johnson's pioneering Red River Campaign: Politics and Cotton in the Civil War (1958) remains the standard campaign history. Modern successor works from the likes of Gary Joiner, Henry Robertson, Michael Forsyth, William Brooksher, and others offer even more concise narratives, though most add useful bits and pieces of new information and alternate interpretations of interest. While survey histories are abundant, the current collection of book-length Red River operational and battle studies remains in a pitiable state of incompleteness in no way commensurate with the campaign's scale and significance. So a book like Weldon Nash, John Taylor, and Mitchel Whitington's "May God have Mercy on Us.": The Twenty Days of the Cane River Campaign in Louisiana will immediately grab the attention of students wishing to learn more about the retreat phase of the Red River operation. Recounting the retrograde movement of the Union army in Louisiana from Grand Ecore to Alexandria, their study freshly focuses on a sequence of events believed by many at the time to have been a great lost opportunity for the Confederates to achieve a victory of strategic dimensions.

From April 10 to 27, the interval between the conclusion of the Battle of Pleasant Hill and the "escape" of Nathaniel Bank's army from its isolated position within the inland island formed by the Red and Cane rivers, constant rearguard skirmishing occurred and two battles (Blair's Landing and Monett's Ferry) were fought. Though the book covers land and naval military actions from that roughly three-week period on a day-by-day basis, the primary selling point of the study is its coverage of the Battle of Monett's Ferry. Though a quick perusal of the Red River library reveals slightly broader handling than the "only a paragraph or two" treatments claimed to be typical, this study's chapter-length account of Monett's Ferry, while still not exhaustive in nature, does indeed have small-unit depth that surpasses the rest.

Basically, the pursuing Confederates under Richard Taylor had the bulk of General Banks's army hemmed in on the Cane River island in front, flank, and rear by a thin screen of mostly cavalry. Confederate general Hamilton Bee held the most important blocking position atop the heights overlooking Monett's Ferry, a choke point that represented the only major Cane River crossing suitable for wheeled traffic. However, as so often proved providential during the war, a local slave showed Banks the location of a low-water ford that would allow him to outflank Bee's heavily outnumbered defenders. The small force Banks sent across the river on the flanking mission quickly surprised and drove back Bee's weakly defended left flank, leading Bee to abandon the ferry crossing altogether. With Monett's Ferry uncovered, Banks effected an uncontested crossing of Cane River and continued his retreat to Alexandria.

In the wake of Monett's Ferry, press and army criticism of the already lowly regarded Bee was harsh. Taylor in particular believed that Bee's position was strong enough to have been held indefinitely. For the rest of his days, Taylor maintained that only Bee's spineless incompetence prevented the wholesale surrender of Banks's army. On the other hand, modern writers and historians (including the three co-authors of this study) have reassessed the controversial Cane River mythology with far greater objectivity and a much clearer knowledge of the military situation on the ground. Their publications generally present a more sympathetic appreciation of the long odds faced by Bee's command. Even though Bee can be justly criticized for being inflexible and slow to react to the Union assault on his left, most (and probably all) writers agree that Banks would have forced a crossing one way or another in the low-water conditions present at the time. Contrary to some contemporary Confederate assertions, there's no evidence that the Union troops or their leaders were greatly demoralized by the retreat or panicked by the circumstances they found themselves in at Cane River. Though most of the worst criticisms leveled at Bee have little to support them, the general certainly didn't help his own case by essentially fleeing the front rather than sticking close by to further harass and slow the enemy. In the end, Nash, Taylor, and Whitington's analysis soundly reinforces the scholarly consensus that Monett's Ferry did not represent a golden opportunity to force the surrender of an entire Union field army and reshape the strategic balance in the West.

The volume is generously supplied with photos, maps, and figures. That all of the military maps are borrowed from earlier publications is not ideal, but they do convey a generally adequate picture of the Monett's Ferry battlefield and the geography of the larger campaign. Research consists mostly of published primary and secondary sources. A small number of unpublished diaries were accessed by the authors online, and while these were used effectively one can't help but surmise that some research effort in physical manuscript archives would have resulted in an even richer narrative.

"May God have Mercy on Us." is not definitive in its treatment of the Cane River episode, but it does represent a step forward in fleshing out the details of a major and frequently misunderstood component of the 1864 Red River Campaign.

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