Review: Red River Campaign: Politics & Cotton in the Civil War

Red River Campaign: Politics & Cotton in the Civil War. Ludwell H. Johnson. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press; Reprint edition (April 1993). 317 pp. 11 maps.

Nearly fifty years after the book was first written, by most accounts Ludwell Johnson’s Red River Campaign: Politics & Cotton in the Civil War remains the best overall treatment of the subject. Johnson covers Nathaniel P. Banks’ abortive effort to move northwest along the Red River in an effort to reach Shreveport, Louisiana. Frederick Steele would take a force from Little Rock, Arkansas south in a supporting role. Ostensibly, this was all in preparation for an advance into Texas.

As the title suggests, Johnson’s study takes a look at the reasons why the Red River Campaign was launched in the first place, and these reasons had little to nothing to do with what made sense as far as strictly military objectives go. He repeatedly stresses this point throughout the book. Although this is also a fine campaign study, Johnson’s coverage of “politics & cotton” adds an extra dimension to this book. His first few chapters deal with the reasons behind the campaign. One of the two main reasons behind this advance was to obtain a foothold in Texas so that free staters could flood the state in a move similar to what was done in Kansas in the 1850’s. Northern abolitionists and other groups hoped to create “five or six” free states out of the current massive slave state. A corollary effect would have been to prevent any attempted European land grabs in the southern portions of the former United States. France had installed Maximilian as a puppet emperor of Mexico, and many Northern politicians feared that France would not stop there. The second reason involved cotton, the almost desperate need for the crop in Massachusetts and other Northern mills, and the immense profits to be gain by speculators who were allowed to accompany the army.

Nathaniel Banks, a politician turned general, had designs on the 1864 presidency, and he hoped to use the campaign as a springboard to election. As a Massachusetts man, he also hoped to capture thousands of bales of cotton to ship back to his home state, making himself a hero in the process. In addition, he was hamstrung by a need to keep cotton speculators with important political connections happy, although Johnson repeatedly stresses that Banks mostly managed to keep his head above the murky speculation waters. Even President Lincoln could be duped on occasion, in one case signing a note that instructed Banks to do everything in his power to help Samuel Casey, a former congressman and now a cotton speculator. What Casey hoped to do was far from legal, and Banks had no choice but to give him free reign. In any case, the commanding general had many reasons of his own to both go on this campaign and to make sure cotton got back to Northern mills, however legal the means.

The campaign got underway on March 10, 1864, as William Franklin’s portion of Banks’ Army of the Gulf started marching north along the Red River from southern Louisiana. A. J. Smith and half of the XVI Corps joined the expedition by river, joining up at Simmesport, Louisiana. After an early move by smith to capture poorly guarded Fort De Russy on March 17, Banks and his army of over 32,000 effectives (I’ll have a note on this term later) faced Richard Taylor, who initially had 7,000 or so men of his own. Admiral David Porter’s Union fleet accompanied Banks on the expedition, but the low water levels in the Red River had the navy concerned about their ability to navigate the waterway. Taylor could only delay this host, and by March 31 Banks was in Natchitcohes. At this point Banks made a fateful mistake. Instead of continuing to drive northwest along the Red, Banks instead chose an inland road that ran through Pleasant Hill and Mansfield before swinging north again to Shreveport.

Richard Taylor had a surprise waiting in this area for Banks and his men. Taylor attacked the advance portions of Banks’ army near Mansfield, Louisiana on April 8, 1864 with around 8,800 men, driving the Yankees back with heavy casualties and capturing many supply wagons before stopping due to the darkness. He had faced a grand total of around 12,000 Federal troops in the fight. Many others were miles behind. Johnson faults Banks and William Franklin for the troop positions chosen in the march. Incredibly, the train of the cavalry force covering the main body was placed in front of any infantry, and these were the supply wagons captured when the Union troops were forced to beat a hasty retreat. Taylor again attacked Banks at Pleasant Hill, nearly winning another major victory if not for the solid stand of A. J. Smith’s “gorillas” of the XVI Corps. After this fight, Banks retreated to Grand Ecore, just to the north of the Natchitoches. At this point Kirby Smith, commander of the Confederate Department of the Trans-Mississippi, took most of Taylor’s troops away in an effort to stop Frederick Steele’s movement towards Shreveport from Arkansas. Taylor was furious, believing that Banks’ troops were demoralized and possibly ripe for capture. The disagreement festered and led to Taylor’s transfer shortly after the end of the campaign.

Banks had retired to Alexandria with his army, but he could go no farther. The Red River’s water levels remained very low, and Porter’s naval vessels were all but trapped until the river rose or some other method could get them south of the falls at Alexandria and to safety. So Banks was stuck twiddling his thumbs while waiting for the water to rise. Eventually, through the construction of several damns by the army, Porter was able to get his ships over the falls. The Federals left a path of destruction in their wake, burning houses all the way south from Grand Ecore and even leveling Alexandria by firing the town. Johnson singles out the men of A. J. Smith’s Corps as the main culprits, though I suspect it was a bit more complicated than that. Taylor, deprived of all but 5,000 men, could only harass the Federals as they made good their escape.

Johnson argues that this unnecessary campaign delayed the end of the war by at least a short period of time, say two or so months. Banks’ mistakes on the Red River tied up as many as 20,000 men who could have been used to reinforce Sherman’s army operating against Atlanta or who might have started a campaign against Mobile, Alabama, according to the author. Instead, these men were stuck west of the Mississippi, allowing General Polk and the 20,000 odd men of his Corps who were detailed to guard Mobile to move north to help Joe Johnston defend Atlanta. In non-military terms, the campaign was also a failure. 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. Banks’ Presidential hopes were also crushed by his humiliating failures during the campaign. In the end, a campaign conceived for purely non-military reasons ended up hurting other campaigns which were very important to the quick prosecution of the war.

I enjoyed Ludwell Johnson’s writing style. He presents the various aspects of the campaign in an entertaining and informative way. One term I found a little odd was Johnson’s use of “effectives” rather than Present for Duty (PFD) strengths, though the fact that the book was written in 1958 may have something to do with that. Johnson seems very high on Richard Taylor, and for good reason. The son of a President was an excellent general, and it seems that his ideas for pursuing Banks made more sense than Kirby Smith’s “less risk, less reward” decision to stop Steele inn Arkansas. The author finds Banks to be a very poor leader, fairly criticizing many of his decisions. He also seems to have a decidedly low opinion of David D. Porter, painting him in a very unflattering light when it came to his handling of cotton. Johnson believes that Porter was extremely greedy and little better than a thief when it came to possession of the valuable crop. He also finds Porter’s attempts to get his boats south of the falls at Alexandria to be less than satisfactory. A. J. Smith’s XVI Corps takes quite a few jabs from the author’s pen. Johnson seems to hold the XVI Corps entirely at fault for the destruction of property in Louisiana during the march, entirely absolving the Eastern troops making up the majority of Banks’ army.

The maps are surprisingly good for a book written in 1958. The advance up the Red River is covered in stages with several area maps. The Battles of Mansfield and Pleasant Hill are decently depicted, even going down to regimental level in a few key places. However, there is only one map for each of these battles, and things such as terrain and elevation are not even attempted. The book has more of a focus on the overall campaign than the actual battles, so the deficiencies in the battle maps do not detract from the story. The book does lack any Order of Battle though, which to me is a serious shortcoming in any campaign study.

Writing in 1958, Johnson did not have access to as many sources as the authors of today, but his book apparently remains the best of a rather uneven bunch, at least according to the reviews I have read online and elsewhere. For this reason, I chose to read Politics & Cotton first, and I hope to have reviews of some of the other Red River Campaign studies available very soon. As I write this, I have two other books and an issue of Savas Publishing’s Civil War Regiments focusing on these events. Johnson repeatedly drives home the point that this campaign more so than others was based on no sound military strategy. Instead, cotton was wanted to fill Northern mills and land was needed in Texas to provide cotton growing areas for free and loyal laborers. I recommend this above average campaign study to anyone interested in the war in the Trans-Mississippi, the Red River Campaign specifically, and the politics involved in the running of the war.

Did you enjoy this blog entry?  Subscribe to TOCWOC’s RSS feed today!

Read more Civil War Book Reviews here at TOCWOC!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *