Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Review - "The Confederate Military Forces in the Trans-Mississippi West, 1861-1865: A Study in Command" by Geise, ed. by Forsyth

[The Confederate Military Forces in the Trans-Mississippi West, 1861-1865: A Study in Command by William Royston Geise, ed. by Michael J. Forsyth (Savas Beatie, 2022). Hardcover, 4 maps, photos, footnotes, bibliography (original and supplemental), index. Pages main/total:xvi,191/227. $32.95]

Even after all the fruitful balancing and reorientation that have occurred over the past three or four decades, it remains abundantly clear that eastern theater Civil War subject matter, with its twin anchors of Antietam and Gettysburg, will always draw the most popular attention and sell the most books. At this point, though, the profusion of biographies and military, social, and political scholarship associated with the West and Trans-Mississippi has made it much more difficult for proponents to argue that those theaters are still profoundly neglected. It was a much different situation in the early 1970s, however, with guerrilla warfare overrepresented in Trans-Mississippi writing and the theater as a whole possessing only a very modest secondary literature of noteworthy status. The 1972 publication of Robert Lee Kerby's Kirby Smith's Confederacy: The Trans-Mississippi South, 1863-1865 was a major event, but a lot of other great material, often in the form of masters theses and dissertations, remained under the radar. Following Kerby by two years was the completion of William Royston Geise's The Confederate Military Forces in the Trans-Mississippi West, 1861- 1865: A Study in Command. While not a study rivaling the grand scale of Kerby's (but with significant overlap), Geise's unpublished dissertation proved to be an important manuscript cited with some regularity by subsequent specialists. This year, to the delight of many, it has finally been released in print, with supplemental editing by Michael Forsyth, who is, like Geise was then, a retired military officer currently working toward a PhD.

A departmental-level history and analysis, Geise's dissertation does not detail the campaigns and battles fought in Missouri, Arkansas, Indian Territory, western Louisiana, and Texas. The nature, outcome, and significance of those military events are duly noted, but only in the context of their functional, and more critically their dysfunctional, connections to the department's frequently contentious high command system. Two interconnected themes course through the book. The first involves the theater's struggles with unity of command and the second (even after unity of command was formally established) the interminable and self-defeating interpersonal clashes between generals that created command friction at all levels. The latter was not entirely unique to the vast region west of the Mississippi River (ex. the Confederate Army of Tennessee command structure was notoriously dysfunctional), but its debilitating nature was, as Geise amply illustrates, perhaps most ingrained there on a theater level.

Present day readers familiar with the current scholarship's critical evaluations of the panoply of generals presented in this book (among them Edmund Kirby Smith, Ben McCulloch, Albert Pike, Sterling Price, Henry Sibley, Earl Van Dorn, Thomas Hindman, Theophilus Holmes, Richard Taylor, Simon Bolivar Buckner, and "Prince John" Magruder) will find those conclusions, both positive and negative, remarkably harmonious with Geise's now fifty-year-old assessments. This is a function of Geise's informed judgment as well as perhaps his own influence on contemporary historians and future scholars alike.

Editor Michael Forsyth, the author of three book-length studies of 1864 Trans-Mississippi operations in Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana, judiciously augments Geise's original citations in several noteworthy ways. His own footnote contributions—clearly and carefully separated from the author's original ones by paired backslashes—offer original commentary (the editorial context of which is drawn from up to date developments in the scholarship), modern reading suggestions, and selective highlighting of places in the text through which Geise's work either remains distinctive or was ahead of its time. Forsyth also adds a source list supplement to Geise's own bibliography that reveals to today's readers strong elements of the scholarly growth of Trans-Mississippi Civil War studies.

Geise's early chapters do a fine job of explaining how the lack of command unity in the Trans-Mississippi squandered a narrow window of opportunity for Confederate and allied forces in the region to significantly project influence beyond administrative borders (most critically during the early contest for Missouri). By the time the Trans-Mississippi region was formally reorganized into a Confederate military department in May 1862, the already slim possibility of meaningfully disputing federal control of Missouri (or at least significantly delaying western Union forces securing their Missouri flank, which was a prerequisite to launching major downriver operations into the heart of the Mississippi River Valley) was permanently lost.

Much of the book is devoted to tracing the establishment and evolution of what came to be called "Kirby Smithdom," a massive (though, as Geise reveals, not bloated nearly as much as some have contended) bureaucratic entity that doubled as both military department and parallel Confederate government. Union control of the Mississippi River from mid-1863 onward necessitated the latter. Placed at its head was General Edmund Kirby Smith. With communication from Richmond unreliable, Kirby Smith would act in direct consultation with the governors of Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana. In fine fashion, these sections summarize Kirby Smith's creation of military and economic bureaus that would, with few exceptions, act in place of Richmond's. Departmental management of the legal and extralegal cotton trade that proved necessary to the economic viability and foreign/domestic purchasing power of the department is critiqued, as are the various top-down initiatives designed to expand native industry of all kinds and promote cooperation between Kirby Smith's department and state officials and chief executives. All of those departmental domains were stamped with both successes and failures, and Geise's overall assessment of Kirby Smith's managerial performance is largely positive. Someone would have to have Kerby fresher in mind than this reviewer does in order to determine how much Geise was influenced by or differed with Kerby's analysis. Direct engagement in the main text is absent and only scattered source notes reference Kirby Smith's Confederacy. In every section of the book, Geise's footnotes refer overwhelmingly to original documents, with only occasional references to secondary sources.

Perhaps the most significant point of criticism involving Kirby Smith's 1863-65 handling of military affairs is the way in which he managed his department's response to twin 1864 federal offensives, the Red River Campaign and Camden Expedition. Critics focus in particular on critical decisions made after the Red River Valley battles of Mansfield and Pleasant Hill. The combined results of those two battles convinced General Nathaniel Banks to order a full-scale retreat of his forces in Louisiana, an action that left General Frederick Steele's smaller federal army isolated at Camden in southern Arkansas. In his command-level discussion of the ensuing counteroffensive, Geise briefly weighs historical arguments for and against concentrating Confederate forces versus either Steele in Arkansas or Banks and Porter in Louisiana. The conclusion that Kirby Smith committed an outright strategic blunder by focusing his pursuit on Steele in Arkansas has reached near-consensus levels of agreement in the literature, but Geise is more non-committal on the matter, rather sympathetic toward Kirby Smith's command conundrum and very doubtful of Banks and Porter's vulnerability to further harm. That last point is a minority view among Red River Campaign historians. Among the authors of book-length studies of the campaigns, Forsyth himself takes the "lost opportunity" school of thought to its most controversial lengths, all the while going about it in a novel way [see his arguments in The Red River Campaign of 1864 and the Loss by the Confederacy of the Civil War (2001) and The Camden Expedition of 1864 and the Opportunity Lost by the Confederacy to Change the Civil War (2003)]. To his credit, Forsyth does not utilize his editorial notes in this volume as a platform to further promote his most unorthodox views at Geise's expense.

As one would entirely expect given the long passage of time preceding publication, the overall freshness and impact of William Royston Geise's The Confederate Military Forces in the Trans-Mississippi West, 1861-1865: A Study in Command is to an extent blunted by strong developments in the literature over the five decades following its completion. While the lateness of its publication is to be lamented, the seminal nature of Geise's work and the fact that it's based almost entirely on original sources speaks to its enduring significance. The value added by Michael Forsyth's editing is another clear benefit to finally having this study in print. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Drew, So happy to see this, and I can guarantee the Geise family will be equally pleased. Thanks for taking the time and trouble to give it a full review. It was a labor of love for us. - Theodore P. Savas


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