Grant & The Red River Campaign, Part 1

by Ned B. on March 29, 2015 · 4 comments

Update March 30, 2015: post edited to show a change in how the series will unfold.

In my opinion, several aspects of the Red River campaign of 1864 are misunderstood. An example of this is the role of General Ulysses S Grant. This post is the first in a six an eight part series that will examine his relationship to the campaign.

I am going to start with a statement that might make fans of Frank Varney happy: part of the reason for the misunderstanding of Grant’s role in the campaign is that what Grant wrote in his memoirs is misleading.

Here is how Grant referred to the campaign in his memoirs:

“General Banks had gone on an expedition up the Red River long before my promotion to general command. I had opposed the movement strenuously, but acquiesced because it was the order of my superior at the time. By direction of Halleck I had reinforced Banks with a corps of about ten thousand men from Sherman’s command. This reinforcement was wanted back badly before the forward movement commenced. But Banks had got so far that it seemed best that he should take Shreveport on the Red River, and turn over the line of that river to Steele, who commanded in Arkansas, to hold instead of the line of the Arkansas. Orders were given accordingly, and with the expectation that the campaign would be ended in time for Banks to return A. J. Smith’s command to where it belonged and get back to New Orleans himself in time to execute his part in the general plan. But the expedition was a failure. Banks did not get back in time to take part in the programme as laid down. Nor was Smith returned until long after the movements of May, 1864 , had been begun. The services of forty thousand veteran troops, over and above the number required to hold all that was necessary in the Department of the Gulf, were thus paralyzed.” 1

In the first sentence Grant claims that the campaign began “long before my promotion to general command.” Grant was promoted on March 10th 1864.2 But Banks’ forces did not start on the campaign until March 13th, three days later.3 And the detachment from Sherman’s command only left Vicksburg for the Red River on March 10th, the same day as the promotion. 4 So in his memoirs Grant misrepresented the timing of the campaign.

The chronology is important because Banks was outside Grant’s command authority prior to the promotion.  However, the campaign involved forces from Sherman’s command and Steele’s command, both of whom had been under Grant’s authority before he was promoted. Grant mentioned them in the paragraph quoted above but in an off hand way that minimizes their role. Sherman had been essential parts of the planning of the campaign for months prior. As a result, Grant had been more aware of the campaign than his memoirs imply. Part 2 of this series will discuss in more detail the role of Sherman in the lead up to the campaign and how that involved Grant.

Prior to his promotion, Grant was subject to the direction of General Halleck. Part 3 will examine Halleck’s influence on Grant with respect to the Red River Campaign.

Once promoted, Grant had authority over all the commanders involved and issued orders that had an impact on the campaign. Parts 3, 4 and 5 4, 5, and 6 will review Grant’s orders to Banks in mid-March, late-March and mid-April, respectively, and examine the effect they had on the campaign.

Part 67 will look at Grant’s final decisions regarding the campaign and Part 8 will include conclusions about what it all means.

Look for a new post each week.  Thanks for reading.

 

  1. Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S Grant, Chapter 47; the same text can also be found in the chapter titled “Preparing for the Campaigns of 64″ in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, vol. 4
  2. Stanton to Grant, March 10, 1864
  3. Franklin to Stone, March 13, 1864
  4. General Orders No 3, Headquarters, Red River Expedition

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Frazier, Donald S. Blood on the Bayou: Vicksburg, Port Hudson, and the Trans-Mississippi. (State House Press: March 2015). 500 pages, 125 illustrations, 30 maps, notes, bibliography, index.  ISBN: 978-1-933337-63-0. $39.99 (Cloth)

Blood on the Bayou, the third installment in what is called Frazier’s Louisiana Quadrille, begins “This is not the book I intended to write.” I am a big fan of this series: three years ago I wrote a glowing review of the previous book, Thunder Across the Swamp. So I was really looking forward to Blood on the Bayou, so much so that I worried my expectations were too high such that I was bound to be disappointed. I was not. This was absolutely the book I hoped for. But I understand what Dr. Frazier was getting at in his opening remark, and in a way this was not the book I expected to read.

One of the things that I like so much about Frazier’s books is the quality of the writing and editing.  Frazier has talent as a writer.  He skillfully sets scenes and paces action well. He moves smoothly from the big picture to the personal anecdote. The handling of personalities and perspectives feels balanced. The research seems both broad and deep. The editing and publishing is also well done. The maps are clear and simple, yet informative.  The book is full of photographs and lithographs that enhance the reading experience. And I did not find my reading enjoyment disrupted by editing issues. These are things I expected from this book, and my expectations were met.

Knowing the general scope of the book, I also expected to read thrilling accounts of the Confederate’s capture of Brashear City, their failed assault on Fort Butler, and the battle at Koch’s Plantation. All of that was there.  Despite the title of the book, Port Hudson and Vicksburg happen off stage, mentioned only in passing. The heart of the book is a 250-page stretch from Chapter 5 through Chapter 15  that covers the six week campaign in the La Fourche region of Louisiana as the Confederates attempted to disrupt and distract the Union forces from the seige of Port Hudson. In a war with large battles like Gettysburg and Chickamauga, the action in Louisiana was comparatively very minor.  But there was still real drama in these fights and Frazier brings them alive.

But, as he confessed, this was not the book he intended.  The study of history is a process in which one researches sources and filters information in order to reveal the past. In so doing, Frazier developed a new understanding of the role of slavery, and particularly the slave population, in the war.  The nature of the war had changed by mid-1863 but also Frazier’s understanding of the forces at work has changed. Much more so than his previous work, this book deals with the social and economic upheaval that resulted from the war as the existing slave system fell apart.

Thus Blood On the Bayou begins with chapters that cover the same chronological periods contained in the previous two books — in fact some of the maps and quotes are exactly the same — but with added detail and emphasis on the evolving situation of the slave population of Louisiana. This aspect of the war is so critical to the region because of the large concentration of slaves along the lower Mississippi: the main action of the book takes place in an area in which the slave population heavily outnumbered the free. Throughout the rest of the book, Frazier reminds the reader about the status and dynamics of this population as the contending armies fought back and forth over a relatively small area, literally and figuratively tearing down the old order. Frazier seemed concerned at how this aspect of the book would be received, writing “I expect that many will find fault with my conclusions.” I don’t think that concern was necessary.  The book is much richer as a result of the work Frazier has done.  The war was a very complicated and messy event and I applaud Frazier for digging in to this complexity.

Camp Pope Publishing

There is another, related, way in which this is not the book I expected.  When Frazier’s series was first described, it was indicated that this book would extend through early 1864.  But telling the story of the summer of 1863 took more space that he seems to have expected and the book ends in August.  So I want to close with a plea (and with the hope that he might actually read this): Dr. Frazier, I implore you to reconsider the Quadrille. It was clever idea, likening the war in Louisiana to a four part creole dance.  But you have placed yourself in a tight spot.  Thunder Across the Swamp and Blood on the Bayou each only cover about 4 months of the war. There is still close to two years of war left and yet only one more book planned. Please consider splitting the remaining time between two books — make the series a quintet.   In past announcements, the next book has been called Death at the Landing, an obvious allusion to what happened at Blairs Landing during the Red River campaign.  I feel there is too much of substance between the end of Blood on the Bayou and the Red River campaign that the intervening time should be handled in a separate book. There have been books that cover parts of this time period [Cotham’s Sabine Pass, Lowe’s Texas Overland Campaign, Townsend’s Yankee Invasion of Texas] but none that ties it all together as you can.

Regardless of what Dr. Frazier does next, I look forward to it.

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What are your Top 10 Gettysburg Books? See what a panel of bloggers said recently.

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