Friday, June 25, 2010

Forsyth: "THE RED RIVER CAMPAIGN OF 1864 AND THE LOSS BY THE CONFEDERACY OF THE CIVIL WAR"

[The Red River Campaign of 1864 and the Loss by the Confederacy of the Civil War by Michael J. Forsyth (McFarland & Co. ph. 800-253-2187, 20101).  Paperback, maps, photos, notes, appendices2, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:127/182. ISBN: 978-0-7864-44991  $35]

In the decades passed since the publication of Ludwell Johnson's classic Red River Campaign: Politics & Cotton in the Civil War, the disastrous 1864 Union sojourn in Louisiana has been treated to a number of brief survey histories. While none of these have truly surpassed Johnson overall, and full length battle studies remain nonexistent, recent works, especially those of Gary Joiner, have further illuminated certain aspects of the campaign. Reissued in paperback this year, Michael J. Forsyth's slim book The Red River Campaign of 1864 and the Loss by the Confederacy of the Civil War is less of a broad summary (although it does provide a suitable one) and more of an analytical treatise that focuses on the question of whether the Confederates could have achieved a victory decisive enough to alter the course of the war had different command decisions been made in the aftermath of the April 9, 1864 Battle of Pleasant Hill. Forsyth agrees with previous writers that the entire campaign was a serious strategic mistake on the part of the Union high command, and he fervently believes that it was the Confederates that were in much the better position to exploit a major victory in the wilds of central Louisiana.

Historically, even though victorious at Pleasant Hill, Union army commander Nathaniel Banks elected to retreat down the valley of the rapidly falling Red River, seriously harassed all along his route by Richard Taylor's greatly diminished army, then composed mostly of cavalry. Central to the author's thesis is his assertion that the Confederacy fumbled this golden opportunity to destroy an entire enemy army and fleet. Forsyth asserts that had Confederate commander Edmund Kirby Smith not stripped Richard Taylor of his three infantry divisions and diverted them to Arkansas, one of the Confederacy's best chances to force a surrender of an entire Union army, and destruction of a large gunboat fleet, was lost. While the author discounts the notion, self-interestedly promoted by Richard Taylor himself in his memoir Destruction and Reconstruction, that such a result would have been a foregone conclusion, he believes the possibility very much existed. That said, Forsyth goes further than most in maintaining that such a decisive strategic victory could have been a war winning gambit for the Confederates. His thought process is that, by denying use of essentially two corps of veteran troops that would historically prove to be critical components of important Union victories, those events would be overturned or at least rendered less decisive. The lengthening of the war absent those morale boosts would then have caused Lincoln to lose the November election.

So, what of these possibilities outlined by the author. Specifically, Forsyth offers three points where he believes a strong chance of actually trapping and destroying Banks in Louisiana existed -- at Grand Ecore early on in the retreat, between the Cane and Red rivers at Monett's Ferry, and finally at Alexandria. Even against Taylor's tiny, mostly mounted, force, all of these points proved historically problematic for Banks as he tried to extricate his army and cover the navy, and it is not unreasonable to contend that the retention of three entire infantry divisions with the aggressive Taylor in command might have produced decisive results.  While he rightly acknowledges the fact that these ideas are not entirely original ones, Forsyth's point that previous writers have proven less willing to imagine greater results attached to a more complete Confederate victory beyond prolonging the war by a few months is well taken.

What Forsyth is promoting here is not outlandish, but his line of thinking does require acceptance of a chain of what-ifs (usually the death of big idea hypotheticals). Furthermore, he, like many authors and historians, equates Lincoln's loss of the 1864 election with Confederate victory, a debatable supposition. Finally, whatever the circumstances, and however erratic Banks's decision making might prove, the Confederate army as a whole did not exactly have a track record of being able to force the surrender of large veteran Union armies, let alone those also backed by a powerful naval contingent.

However persuasive one ultimately finds his exercise in counterfactual history to be, Michael Forsyth has nevertheless crafted one of the best short works on the subject of the Red River Campaign. There is certainly enough of an all around history of the campaign (based on a judicious synthesis of the available literature) present to recommend the book to new readers seeking an introductory work. Meanwhile, serious students of the campaign can appreciate its thoughtful arguments and analysis.

Notes:

1 - The 2010 ed. is a paperback reissue. The first ed. hardcover was released back in 2001 from the same publisher.
2 - A campaign timeline, orders of battle, and maps. The latter are a combination of O.R. atlas and Battles & Leaders reproductions, as well as original schematic drawings created by the author.

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