I recently acquired Thunder Across the Swamp by Donald Frazier. This is his second book on the Civil War in Louisiana and covers just a four-month time frame from February to May 1863. I suspect that most who are interested in the Civil War know little about the action in southern Louisiana during early 1863. This book is an excellent narrative of that time.
The first quarter of the book sets the scene and describes events in February and March. The most enlightening and exciting aspect of this part of the book was the description of the naval actions. The regional US naval commanders — Commander David Porter above Vicksburg, Rear Admiral David Farragut at New Orleans and Lieutenant-Commander Augustus Cooke at Brashear City (modern day Morgan City) — each tried to push past Confederate defensive positions while Major General Richard Taylor, the Confederate commander in Louisiana, sought to build up his waterborne force. In this phase the Confederates generally got the upper hand, capturing or sinking several US vessels. Of 12 boats sent into Confederate controlled territory, 2 were captured and put into Confederate service, 3 more were lost, and 4 were disabled.
Porter’s attempts to run passed the Confederate batteries at Vicksburg ended badly. In February the Queen of the West made it downstream and briefly menaced Confederate commerce but when it tried to engage some of Taylor’s forces on the Red River it was crippled and captured. Porter next sent the Indianola down the river only to encounter a Confederate task force that included the Queen of the West now flying Confederate colors. Frazier’s description of the fight that followed, leading to the destruction of the Indianola, was thrilling.
Partially in response to the loss of the Queen of the West and the Indianola, Farragut decided to get his fleet above Port Hudson. In a daring nighttime dash on March 14, he raced upstream passed the batteries but only two of his seven vessels made it. One ship was destroyed and four others were disabled and drifted down river. Later in March Porter sent two rams – the Switzerland and the Lancaster – to run by Vicksburg. They suffered greatly from the Confederate batteries and the Lancaster was sunk though the Switzerland survived and joined Farragut. Also at the end of March, Captain Thomas Peterson led the Diana in a probe of Confederate defenses in Bayou Teche. He bit off more than he could chew, running into ambush. The 3-hour fight and resulting capture of the Diana by Texas cavalry is dramatically told by Frazier.
The heart of the book is about the action that occurred along Bayou Teche in south central Louisiana during early April 1863. Taylor hoped to bring his land and water forces together to strike towards New Orleans, but Major General Nathaniel Banks, the US commander in Louisiana, moved first, concentrating his forces against Taylor. Banks launched a two-prong operation, advancing with four brigades directly against Taylor’s two brigades at Fort Bisland while sending a three-brigade division by boat on a wide flank movement to get into Taylor’s rear at Irish Bend. Concurrently, as the land forces battled, the Queen of the West approached from the north to engage Banks’ US Navy support. Discovering the trap closing around him Taylor retreated, slipping away on an overlooked bridge through a swamp near Franklin. Frazier spends several chapters on the fighting at Fort Bisland and Irish Bend, giving a rich treatment to these relatively unknown battles. I found the narrative of Taylor’s escape especially riveting.
With the collapse of Taylor’s position in southern Louisiana, the dynamic in the theater changed. The final third of the book covers the time between Taylor’s retreat and the siege of Port Hudson, roughly from mid-April to mid-May. Banks had pushed deep into Louisiana but struggled with what to do next. Communication with Grant was sporadic and so delayed that messages were obsolete as soon as they were read. Despite his success against Taylor, Banks still faced significant natural and logistical obstacles in moving further. Meanwhile, Taylor was regrouping in western Louisiana, collecting reinforcements from Texas. In addition to describing the command-level decisions, Frazier fits in observations about the destructive nature of war, such as the plundering of the countryside by US troops and the impact of enlisting former slaves into the US army. He also skillfully balances the micro-narrative with the big picture. Obscure cavalry actions are described in action-packed detail while at the same time the regional strategic situation is clearly explained.
Frazier’s writing has a nice pace to it and he is descriptive enough so the reader understands the action without getting bogged down in the detail. Likewise, the maps are simple, clear but with enough key information to help the reader. While Frazier does not provide a stand alone description of the regional geography, the narrative and the maps are easy enough to follow that one gets a sense of the importance of the interconnected waterways. There are a few awkward transitions and a few minor editing mistakes but not enough to detract from the overall experience. It’s a testament his writing that I would stay up longer than normal in order to finish chapters. I highly recommend this book and I look forward to Frazier’s next work.