Volume 26, No. 9 – September 2013
Volume 26, No. 9
We owe our inception to the vision and determination of Civil War enthusiast, Robert (Bob) S. Godwin. In 1987 Bob secured a list of Palm Beach County subscribers to the "Civil War Times." He personally contacted each one and invited them to join a fledgling Round Table. Bob was so excited to have three other people who shared his interest at the first meeting on September 16, 1987. The charter members who attended were Rodney Dillon, Bob Godwin, Joel Gordon, and Greg Parkinson. Unfortunately, Bob Godwin and his lovely wife, Lillian, died tragically in an auto accident on June 15, 1990 en route to Virginia Tech’s "Campaigning with Lee" seminar.
I know that Bob would draw great satisfaction knowing that the Round Table has grown to over sixty-five members, meets monthly, and will be celebrating twenty-six successful years in Palm Beach County.
Eleven years ago I never expected to be writing the September, 2013, President’s Message. I greatly appreciate the confidence you have in me. Thank you to the members for all your assistance and guidance through the years. Every time you volunteer or give financial support to the Round Table, it makes us a stronger and more viable organization. In this way the Round Table will continue to evolve and change with the needs of the membership.
Gerridine LaRovere, President
September 11, 2013 Program
One of our favorite member-speakers, Janell Bloodworth, will entertain and educate about "Emilie Todd Helm, President Abraham Lincoln's Confederate Sister-in-Law."
August 10, 2013 Program
If someone not in the Roundtable were asked, "What was the largest campaign in the American Civil War west of the Mississippi River?" the response probably would be, "There were battles west of the Mississippi?" True, these battles were not as famous as those in Virginia or Pennsylvania or Tennessee or Georgia, but they were important. In fact, the Red River Campaign, the Confederacy’s last major victory, delayed the end of the war and destroyed a Union general’s political career.
Steve pointed out that we actually have an embarrassment of riches with respect to the Red River Campaign. In chronological order, oldest is the Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, 1863-1866 (U. S. Congress 1866), reprinted in 1977, 401 pages packed with copies of original sources in very small print. Next, The Red River Campaign – Politics and Cotton in the Civil War, a seminal work by Professor Ludwell H. Johnson, Professor Emeritus of History at The College of William and Mary, published in 1958 and republished in 1995) which Steve used to outline his talk. Then comes War Along the Bayous, by William R. Brooksher, U. S. Army Brigadier General, Retired, published in 1998; followed by The Red River Campaign and the Loss by the Confederacy of the Civil War, by Michael J. Forsythe a then active U. S. army officer, published in 2002; then came two related books, One Damn Blunder From Beginning to End and Through the Howling Wilderness: the Red River Campaign and Union Failure in the West, both by Gary D. Joiner, an associate professor at Louisiana State University, and both published in 2006; then Little to Eat and Thin Mud to Drink: Letters, Diaries, and Memoirs from the Red River Campaign, 1863-1864, edited by Joiner, published in 2007; and finally, Richard Taylor and the Red River Campaign of 1864, by Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr., published in 2012, another retired military man with over 40 books published.
They say that history is always written by the victors, but all of the authors listed are or were Southerners and this sometimes shows in the way they write. That is certainly true of Professor Johnson, who has written extensively on the history of the Civil War, and who has a distinctly pro-Southern tilt. At least one critic called his body of work, "the Southern version" which attempts to "redeem the honor of the Confederacy." The same critic said, "Johnson preferred Lee to Grant as a military commander and Jefferson Davis to Lincoln as a war president; and he saw the South as defending itself against an aggressive North." In an earlier book, North Against South: The American Iliad, 1848-1877, Johnson went so far as to contend that the horrors of Reconstruction were but a continuation of atrocities perpetuated during the war by Union armies. Nevertheless, Johnson’s book accurately details all the reasons the Union saw for waging the campaign.
Foremost was POLITICS: The year 1864 was an election year and President Lincoln thought that if he could get Louisiana back into the Union before the election in November, he could count on its electoral votes.
Second was COTTON: Shreveport, Louisiana, and Northeast Texas were major sources of cotton, which if it could be smuggled out by blockade runners and sold to British textile mills, would pay for armaments and supplies for the Confederacy. The textile mills in Massachusetts and other New England states also wanted that cotton and speculators with political connections smelled immense profits to be gained by having the cotton confiscated as contraband and shipped North.
Third and by no means least, was GEOPOLITICS: A successful invasion would allow antislavery settlers to flood Texas as they did in Kansas in the 1850's. Northern abolitionists and other groups hoped to create ‘five or six’ free states out of the single slave state of Texas.
Finally, there was FOREIGN POLICY: France had propped up Maximillian as Emperor of` Mexico. Lincoln and his military strategists feared the French might grab parts of Texas lost by Mexico in the Mexican War for its Mexican puppet regime.
The map shows the Theater of Operations. Three different strategies were debated: U. S. Grant, commander of U. S. forces in the West, wanted to shut the door on smuggling by taking Mobile, Alabama. General Nathaniel P. Banks, who would command the invasion army, preferred an amphibious landing at Sabine Pass and an advance toward Houston and had even made a feeble and unsuccessful unauthorized landing at Sabine Pass in September 1863. General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, derisively nicknamed "Old Brains," however preferred moving up the Red River to take Shreveport, and of course his views prevailed. By the time Grant succeeded Halleck as General-in-Chief, the die had been cast and the troops needed to take Mobile were already west of the Mississippi.
Halleck’s plan called for Banks to take 30,000 plus Union soldiers up the Red River to Shreveport then west to Tyler, Texas, and Marshall, Texas. Accompanying him was the largest Union naval force ever assembled west of the Mississippi, under the command of Admiral David Dixon Porter. What could possibly go wrong? Just about everything!
First came Halleck’s blunder, which may have doomed the entire enterprise to failure even before it started: he never named a supreme commander (no one wanted Banks to be in charge and it is difficult to imagine Banks taking orders from Porter). Instead Halleck "expected" the two egotistical leaders to "cooperate."
It’s time to introduce you to the three major players in this story: Nathaniel P. Banks, then 48 years old, was already a very popular politician (Governor of Massachusetts 1858-1861), but had fallen short of the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. After the war started, Banks had been considered by Lincoln for a cabinet post but instead was one of his first "political" generals. Banks hoped to use a successful campaign as a springboard to nomination and election as president in1864. Johnson alleges that Banks hoped to ship thousands of bales of cotton back to Massachusetts, making himself a rich hero in the process, while keeping cotton speculators with important political connections happy. Johnson admits that Banks, with one exception did not give the speculators any favors. The one exception came when President Lincoln was duped into signing a note instructing Banks to do everything in his power to help Samuel Casey, a former congressman and now a cotton speculator. What Casey hoped to do may not have been entirely legal but Banks had no choice but to give him free reign. In any case, Banks had many reasons of his own both to go on this campaign one of which was to make sure cotton got back to Northern mills by hook or crook. Banks’ army was an ill-suited combination of battle-hardened cocky Western troops, taken from Sherman’s army, commanded by 48-year old Gen. Andrew Jackson Smith and raw recruits from New England that Banks had recruited and brought with him to New Orleans, commanded by 48-year old William Buel Franklin. Both A. J. Smith and Franklin were West Point grads ("P’inters" as we found out last month). There was little or no love lost between the two Corps. Significantly, Franklin was part of Banks’ team, while A. J. Smith was not.
Next on stage is Admiral David Dixon Porter, 51, son of a famous naval hero, second man to be made an admiral, following his adoptive brother, David G. Farragut, a midshipman at 10, victor in the capture of New Orleans and leader of the Mississippi River Squadron that helped Grant capture Vicksburg, Port Hudson and other Confederate positions so the Mississippi, in Lincoln’s famous phrase, "could flow unvexed to the ocean." It is significant to note that Porter hated politics and politicians and this shadowed his relationship with Banks.
Porter’s "brown water navy" consisted of more than 90 vessels (a "marvelous mixture" of ironclads, river monitors, tinclads, timberclads, a ram and support vessels), a separate Marine Brigade of 1,000 men and another separate force under the Quartermaster with its own fleet. Porter wanted all this firepower because he had word of Shreveport’s strong defenses, including many Confederate ironclads and submarines.
Third to take the stage is Confederate Major General Richard Taylor, only 38, a Harvard student who graduated from Yale, a member of the famed Skull & Bones Society, a very rich Louisiana plantation owner, an enlightened slave owner according to Frederick Law Olmstead, a skilled politician, military historian, son of former President Zachary Taylor, brother-in-law of President Jefferson Davis and the most popular Confederate general west of the Mississippi. In the early stages of the war, Stonewall Jackson used Taylor's "Louisiana Tigers" as an elite strike force in the Shenandoah theater. When Taylor was promoted to Major General on July 28, 1862, he was the youngest major general in the Confederacy. He was put in command of the District of West Louisiana, with few troops or other war material. Nevertheless, in a series of battles with Banks in Southern Louisiana, he came close to recapturing New Orleans, but had to retreat when Port Hudson was captured.
Now for the campaign itself: After many delays that vexed President Lincoln, the expedition got underway on March 10, 1864, with Franklin marching north along the Red River from Port Hudson while Smith went north aboard Porter’s troop ships. Banks and his army of over 32,000 faced Taylor, who initially had 7,000 or so men and never more than 8,800 men. Things went well at the start. Fort DeRussy, 20 miles south of Alexandria, called the "Confederate Gibraltar," was the first obstacle. However, as with Singapore in World War II, its guns faced the river and its rear was poorly guarded. Attacking from the rear, A. J. Smith captured the fort on March 14.
By March 31, Banks was in Natchitcohes (pronounced Nakaktish). At this point Banks made the first of five blunders (shown on the map to the right). Instead of continuing to drive northwest along the Red River in conjunction with the U. S. Navy, Banks chose a narrow inland stage coach road that ran from Grand Ecore through Pleasant Hill and Mansfield before swinging north to Shreveport. This blunder meant that he had to carry all of his own supplies and that he would be out of touch with Porter’s gunboats. The source of this blunder, according to Joiner, was a river pilot named Wellington W. Withinberry, who--to protect his own cotton stored upstream--single-handedly sealed the fate of the Union army by convincing Banks to move inland. (Joiner, One Damn Blunder, xv). Joiner considers
Banks’ refusal of either a naval or cavalry reconnaissance up the river "is unforgivable" (Joiner, Through the Howling Wilderness," p. 76). From the beginning of the Red River Campaign, Taylor could only delay the Union advance, but Taylor had a surprise waiting for Banks and his men once they left the river and were approaching Mansfield.
On April 8, 1864, Taylor, with 8,800 men, surprised the head of Banks' 20-mile long column, driving the Yankees back with heavy casualties and capturing many supply wagons before stopping due to the darkness. Banks was able to commit no more than 12,000 of his 32,000 men and Taylor was able to outnumber them at every important point of contact. A look at the map of the battle shows this. The rest of the Union troops were toiling through dust and mud miles behind and missed the battle. This battle’s outcome was determined by a series of additional blunders by Banks. Bank’s second blunder was to "accept battle at the head of a column 20 miles long at the hands of an enemy formed in complete order of battle, in a position previously chosen by the enemy, and where Banks’ artillery could not be used because of the trees in the way" and before he could organize his army. Banks was impatient and ordered his cavalry commander, Albert Lee, to charge unassisted across an open field into hidden rebel guns. Only Lee’s adamant refusal to obey this suicidal order kept this battle from being a total rout before it really even started. Banks’ third and most serious blunder had been to set the order of march with the cavalry in front, "followed immediately by 300 wagons at Franklin’s insistence so as not to delay his own supply train." Then came 2,500 U. S. Colored Troops to guard the wagon train. Then came Franklin’s 15,000 infantry. Then came 700 more wagons. Finally came A. J. Smith’s 7,500 angry veterans. The red clay stage road was so narrow the men could not march more than 4 abreast and was either a dust storm when dry or slippery muck when wet. One Union cavalryman called the area "a howling wilderness." Most of the supply wagons were captured by the rebels when the Union teamsters beat a hasty retreat. Banks and Franklin failed to see that the two wagon trains would box in Franklin’s infantry, hindering both their advance and their retreat. Joiner, in Through the Howling Wilderness, p 77-79, notes a fourth blunder by Banks: "Banks’ use of only one road set the stage for disaster. His failure to have his cavalry fan out ahead and seek other routes qualifies as one of the greatest blunders of the Civil War." By all accounts, the Battle of Mansfield was "one of the most humiliating Union defeats of the war."
A dirty little secret must be revealed about Taylor’s forces – a substantial portion of his army consisted of parole violators – veterans who had surrendered at Vicksburg and Port Hudson. What they were doing was highly illegal and the punishment for their crime was death. They apparently had no homes to go home to and the Southern officers and men quietly welcomed them into their ranks.
The next day, April 9, Taylor attacked Banks at Pleasant Hill. Technically Taylor lost the battle because of the solid stand of A. J. Smith's men, but this battle put an end to the campaign because Banks now commits a fifth and final blunder that sealed the fate of his political hopes by retreating that night, instead of regrouping and attacking in the morning. Steve stated that he had no doubt that if Grant or Sherman (or A. J. Smith) had been in command, he would have attacked the next morning and probably prevailed. Edward Kirby Smith, 40, another P’inter, and as commander of the Confederate Department of the Trans-Mississippi, reported to President Davis after the battle that Taylor’s forces had been "repulsed and were broken and scattered and completely paralyzed" and had Banks attacked, he very well could have walked to Shreveport. A. J. Smith, as noted before, not part of Banks’ inner circle, agreed with Kirby Smith and confronted Banks, contending that the Union army should follow up its victory, but Banks would not change his mind. A. J. Smith then asked Franklin to weigh in but Franklin would not do so. A. J. Smith even suggested that Franklin arrest Banks and take over command. Franklin said, "Smith, don’t you know this is mutiny?" Smith silently left to carry out his orders. The Union soldiers could not believe a retreat had been ordered and serenaded Banks, chanting:
"In 1861, we all skedaddled to Washington.
In a confidential letter to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells dated April 28, 1864, Admiral Porter bluntly agreed with the soldiers: "The only man here who possesses the entire confidence of the troops is General A. J. Smith, and if he were placed in command of this army he would, I am convinced, retrieve all its disasters." [Joint Committee Report, page 253]
At this point Kirby Smith, Taylor’s superior officer, may have saved Banks and Porter from total defeat by taking most of Taylor's troops away to defeat Union General Frederick Steele's movement south from Little Rock, Arkansas towards Shreveport. Taylor was furious, believing that Banks' troops were demoralized and ripe for capture. The disagreement festered and led to Taylor's transfer shortly after the end of the campaign.
The Union retreat from Pleasant Hill to Alexandria was not a pleasure trip because of the loss of the supply train and constant attacks by the Confederate cavalry. In a letter dated May 4, 1864, Union Private Thomas Hayden wrote a letter to a friend in which he says, "Pleasant Hill was not exactly a victory for us. Gen. Banks thought he had seen enough of that part of the country so, April 21, we began the great retreat to Alexandria. We marched day and night, with the rebs all round us, fighting all the time. It was an awful hard march, Jim. Little to eat and thin mud to drink. We arrived at Alexandria Apr. 26, all tired out. Soldiering out here is no joke." [Little to Eat and Thin Mud to Drink, p. 179-80.]
Porter, 51, had committed his own almost fatal blunder by steaming North of the rapids at Alexandria with all his vessels, putting the most heavily armed vessels with the most draft first in line. Many of Porter’s gunboats and troop ships needed 7 feet of water but the river at Alexandria was often less than 3 feet deep. Porter repeatedly bragged that he could take his fleet "wherever the sand was damp." [One Damned Blunder p 67] Once Banks began his hasty retreat from Pleasant Hill, Porter began a slow retreat down a river with not enough water and too many sandbars. Taylor tried repeatedly to cut off the Union navy’s retreat Capt. Thomas O. Selfridge testified to the Joint Committee that "the return of the fleet was fraught with peril." [Forsythe, The Red River Campaign, page 90]. As noted a moment ago, Taylor’s thinned-out forces harassed Banks’ hungry troops, but Banks was able to retreat over 90 miles to Alexandria. He could go no farther because most of Porter’s squadron was trapped north of the rapids! Banks, under orders from Grant, could not desert Porter here because the Confederates would have sunk or captured the entire squadron.
An ingenious Wisconsin engineer, Col. Joseph Bailey, using skills learned in floating logs down rivers in lumbering operations, rescued Porter from potential disaster with what has been labeled as "one of the most imaginative engineering feats in military history." Taking 3,000 men Bailey built a dam over 700 feet wide in just 10 days, using nothing but trees, rocks, bags of dirt and hundreds of bales of confiscated cotton, then sank four barges filled with stone to fill the gap and raise the level of the river. The dam lasted just long enough to let the Union vessels go roaring down the river to safety. A contraband watching from the shore said, "Before God, what won’t the Yankees do next?" With the navy no longer in jeopardy, Banks was free to continue his retreat. Taylor’s diminished force could harass and continue inflicting casualties on the Union soldiers and sailors, but he lacked the manpower to block and defeat them. Taylor made two last efforts to stop Banks, at Mansura on May 16 and at Yellow Bayou on May 18, but the Union army was able to retreat across the Atchafalaya River to safety.
This ended the campaign. When pressed for his opinion, General William Tecumseh Sherman called it "one damn blunder from beginning to end." Steve added: militarily, politically and economically.
The Federals left a path of destruction in their wake, burning houses and barns and stealing or killing livestock all the way south from Grand Ecore and even leveling Alexandria by firing the town. Johnson singles out A. J. Smith’s battle-hardened westerners (called "gorillas" by the rebels) as the main culprits, though the less-experienced Easterners recruited by Banks did their share of mischief. In addition, the Confederates burned the cotton rather than letting it fall into Union hands. In any event, the residents had to choose between fleeing and starving and preserved their resentments against Yankees for generations.
Professor Johnson argues that the Red River campaign was "unnecessary," that it delayed the end of the war and that it ran up the war’s cost in blood and money. Banks' inglorious expedition tied up as many as 20,000 veteran soldiers who could have been better used to reinforce Sherman's army against Atlanta or to attack Mobile, as Grant wanted. Instead, these men were stuck west of the Mississippi, allowing General Polk and 20,000 rebels to leave Mobile to help Joe Johnston defend Atlanta.
The army under Banks and the navy under Porter failed to cooperate as Halleck had hoped they would, and instead often competed in a race to seize cotton. Even here the campaign was a failure because most of the cotton Banks had hoped to glean was burned on the approach of the Federals or lost in the hasty retreat from Grand Ecore. And the project of making free states out of Texas disappeared with the Union army’s retreat. Lastly, Banks' Presidential hopes were also crushed by his humiliating failures during the campaign. President Lincoln relieved him of field command and returned him to Washington, D. C., to lobby for the president’s Reconstruction program.
Now the Radical Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War jumped in to "investigate" the "disastrous" campaign and "Banks joined the unhappy company of men who were subjected to the prejudicial scrutiny of Ben Wade and his colleagues." "Any evidence tending to reflect discredit on the administration was welcome" and Lincoln’s alleged connection to cotton trading was fodder for the enemies of Lincoln’s Reconstruction plans. Also of interest to the committee were stories of swarms of speculators accompanying the army and allegedly enjoying the assistance and protection of Banks.
Admiral Porter testified that "the whole affair was a cotton speculation . . . a big cotton raid." Porter and the committee conveniently ignored the fact that "wherever cotton was found, [the navy] seized it." Not for nothing was Porter given the nom de guerre "The Thief of the Mississippi." Johnson concluded that "Banks gave no one who accompanied the expedition any special trading privileges. . . . Of course, when Samuel L. Casey and William Butler" (the shady brother one of my favorite Civil War characters, Benjamin Franklin Butler) "appeared with a pass bearing Lincoln’s signature, Banks was obliged to give them a free hand." One witness fabricated an absurd tale that Gov. Richard Yates of Illinois (one of Lincoln’s best friends) had gone to New Orleans as part of a scheme concocted by Yates and Banks to make the latter President by raising a slush fund trading in cotton which would be used to buy the nomination of Banks.
Porter’s postwar career bloomed under President Grant and he did much to reform the Naval Academy and naval policy, but soon rubbed too many important people the wrong way with his brusque manner and total lack of political savvy. By 1868 he had been put out to pasture.
On the Confederate side, Taylor was an excellent general and his ideas for pursuing Banks made more sense than Kirby Smith's decision to block Steele’s move south from Arkansas. Nathan Bedford Forest said: ". . .if we’d had more like him, we would have licked the Yankees long ago." After the war, he moved to New York and wrote his much-praised memoirs, "Destruction and Reconstruction," became active in Democratic Party politics and opposed Radical Reconstruction.
Finally, both armies joined to lay waste a good portion of Western Louisiana which did not recover for many decades. The population harbored great animosity toward the Federal government and the Republican Party for generations.
Forsythe, something of a contrarian, contends that the Red River Campaign was "one of the most successful campaigns conducted by any Confederate army during the Civil War. . . . Through sheer audacity and superior leadership, General Taylor turned back the invaders, driving them all the way to the Mississippi River. In the process, the Confederates . . . [captured] a huge supply train, dozens of field guns, thousands of stands of small arms and over a thousand prisoners. [As a result,] the Rebel government was able to maintain territorial integrity of the region west of the Mississippi until the very last days of the war." [Forsythe, 119-123] Forsythe contends that it might have been possible, had Taylor been allowed to wipe out Banks and Porter, that the election of 1864 might have elected McClellan, leading to a peace treaty. The odds against this theory are almost prohibitive.
In the end, a military campaign conceived for non-military reasons ended up hurting other Union campaigns that were far more important to prosecution of the war. The Red River campaign is "a study in how partisan politics, economic need and personal profit can determine military policy and operations. It is also a story of inept military operations in a tactically useless theater of operations, an operation in which the Union Army was nearly annihilated and the Union River Navy was almost sunk or captured intact. A side effect was to delay the end of the war. Blunder does not begin to connote the foolishness of this campaign. It was a short operation, lasting from only March 12 to May 20, but wound up being one of the most destructive of the entire war."
Ironically, the Red River Campaign had several beneficial aftereffects: army and navy operations became truly "combined" under a single commander instead of relying on cooperation between two equally egotistical commanders. Bailey’s dam was a brilliant adaptation of logging industry techniques. And, for the first time, Capt. Thomas O. Selfridge, Jr., aimed a gun using a periscope invented a few days earlier on board his vessel that succeeded in killing a Confederate general and staff. Selfridge, who commanded the U. S. S. Monitor for four days, served with distinction throughout the war and ended up an admiral in charge of the Pacific Fleet, is included, primarily because one of my Chicago law partners was reputedly a descendant of his! Finally, and most importantly, the navy learned not to take large vessels into tight quarters and instead developed vessels that evolved into the famous Swift Boats used in the Vietnam war. [One Damned Blunder, pages 174-75].
A question and answer session, followed by well-earned applause, ended the evening.
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