- A Crisis in Confederate Command: Edmund Kirby Smith, Richard Taylor, and the Army of the Trans-Mississippi
In the spring of 1864 Union forces launched a double offensive against the Confederates in the "Trans-Mississippi." One arm of this effort advanced up the Red River into northwestern Louisiana; the other came overland across southern Arkansas. The Yankee objective was Shreveport, near the Louisiana-Texas border and the center of Confederate power, authority, and industry west of the Mississippi River.
On 8 April at Mansfield southeast of Shreveport the Confederates turned back the Red River arm of the Yankee campaign. They then shifted their main effort northward to meet the other Federal column. That force, learning [End Page 514] of the result at Mansfield, soon turned back, and the danger to the Rebel position came to an end. Both Union columns were able to retreat without suffering serious damage.
Jeffrey Prushankin uses this campaign as the focus of his fine study of Confederate command in the Trans-Mississippi. The leading Rebels—General Edmund Kirby Smith, commander of the department, and Major General Richard Taylor, in charge of Rebel forces defending Louisiana—are the central figures. The two had long disagreed about the overall policy that the Secessionists should follow west of the Mississippi. Smith favored efforts to regain Arkansas and to establish Rebel rule over Missouri (he owed his command to Arkansas and Missouri politicians). Taylor, who lived near New Orleans, believed that the Confederates should devote their main attention to Louisiana, with the ultimate objective of retaking New Orleans (captured by Federal forces in April 1862).
This difference greatly hampered Rebel operations in the department, especially in 1864 when the Trans-Mississippi Confederates faced their most serious challenge. The dispute came down to what the Rebels should attempt to do in the aftermath of their victory at Mansfield. Should they concentrate on exploiting that success by mounting a full-scale effort to pursue the beaten Federals as they fled back down the Red River, as Taylor advocated, or should they shift troops northward to meet the enemy force in Arkansas, as Smith preferred? The former course might produce a great victory, perhaps even including the capture or destruction of the powerful fleet of gunboats that accompanied the Red River column. The second strategy would ensure the safety of the department. Taylor favored the former strategy; Smith preferred the latter.
Since Smith commanded the department, many of the troops who had helped Taylor triumph at Mansfield went north to Arkansas. Taylor, left with a weakened force, could not trap the Unionists he had beaten at Mansfield, and they eventually escaped from the Red River Valley. Smith was able to do little more than follow and skirmish with the retreating column in Arkansas. Soon after the campaign ended the Smith-Taylor differences broke into the open and quickly turned very personal and very bitter.
The whole sorry episode furnishes an excellent example of how military operations should and should not be conducted and of how good or bad personal chemistry can affect a nation's military fortunes.
Readers wanting tactical lessons can skip this book. Those who wish to ponder the larger aspects of warfare can learn much from studying how Smith and Taylor defended the Trans-Mississippi in 1864.