- Through the Howling Wilderness: The 1864 Red River Campaign and Union Failure in the West
The Red River Campaign of April 1864 was the largest operation undertaken by the combined arms of the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy west of the Mississippi River in the American Civil War. With the publication of this book, author Gary D. Joiner solidifies his position as the preeminent historian of this campaign. Through the Howling Wilderness is an expanded version of his award-winning 2004 book, One Damn Blunder from Beginning to End: The Red River Campaign of 1864. In this 2006 work Joiner has drawn on his previous research, but has added events that occurred prior to the operation and assessed the congressional hearings following the devastating Union defeat. Joiner also expands his analysis of the mistakes made by Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, who led the ground expedition, and Admiral David Dixon Porter, who commanded the fleet.
Union fortunes had changed by the beginning of 1864: Robert E. Lee had been repulsed at Gettysburg the previous July, and Vicksburg had fallen to Ulysses S. Grant. Control of the Mississippi River was firmly in Union hands, with the vast area of the Trans-Mississippi (Texas, Arkansas, Indian Territory, and most of Louisiana) cut off from the rest of the Confederacy. Abraham Lincoln had always demonstrated an interest in the region; he understood the implications of French troops establishing Maximilian as emperor of Mexico in 1863. A strong Union presence along the border would demonstrate to European powers the folly of an incursion into Mexico.
Moreover, 1864 was an election year and Lincoln's run for a second term would not be easy. The commanding general Lincoln had in mind for the Louisiana expedition was also a possible political rival. A three-time governor of Massachusetts and former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Banks was popular in the Northeast. He was, however, not a professional military man and this became evident as events unfolded. [End Page 1246]
The Union goal was Shreveport, Confederate capital of Louisiana. Missouri's Confederate government in exile was located in nearby Marshall, Texas, and the Confederate capital of Arkansas was less than sixty miles away at Old Washington. The Union plan was a two-pronged invasion, one wing moving south from Little Rock, the other moving north up the Red River in Louisiana. The two would meet at Shreveport. The fertile river valley had an added bonus: cotton for the idle mills in Banks's home state of Massachusetts.
Although the Confederates had been planning for an anticipated invasion up the Red River, theirs was not an easy task. Edmund Kirby Smith, who commanded the Trans-Mississippi Department headquartered at Shreveport, had a contentious relationship with Richard Taylor, who commanded the District of Western Louisiana. He also had only the lukewarm support of Sterling Price, commander of the District of Arkansas and Missouri, and almost no support from John Magruder, who headed the District of Texas and wanted to keep his forces in the Lone Star State.
Porter and Banks would never reach Shreveport. Banks was defeated at Mansfield and Pleasant Hill early in April. Union General Frederick Steele was also turned back in Arkansas. The overwhelming numerical superiority of Union forces was not enough to compensate for poor planning and bad military decisions. In spite of disagreements between Kirby Smith and Taylor, the smaller Confederate force prevailed. Moreover, the Confederates had the Federals on the run when Kirby Smith pulled Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri divisions from Taylor and sent them to fight Steele in Arkansas. Joiner clearly censures this decision: "[Kirby] Smith's attempt to capture glory in Arkansas closely paralleled Banks's attempts to gain fame on the battlefield in Louisiana. Kirby Smith should be blamed for Confederate inconsistencies and the inability to achieve complete victory by capturing the fleet and possibly...