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A Crisis in Confederate Command: Edmund Kirby Smith, Richard Taylor and the Army of the Trans-Mississippi

Jeffrey S. Prushankin, Louisiana State University Press, 308 pages, $39.95.

Mainstream Civil War historians have long considered the campaigns conducted west of the Mississippi River curious but inconsequential military sideshows in spite of Shelby Foote’s 70 magnificent pages on the Red River campaign in the third volume of his trilogy published in 1974.

The propensity to marginalize the war in the Trans-Mississippi is changing, thanks in large measure to a new generation of scholars like Anne J. Bailey, Gary D. Joiner, Arthur W. Bergeron Jr. and others who are filling the gaps in the Civil War historiography of the region. They have focused their considerable narrative and analytical skills on places that roll off the tongue like molasses—Bayou Bourbeau, Niblett’s Bluff, Poison Springs, Magnolia and El Dorado Landing—and on rivers with names barely pronounceable like Atchafalaya and Ouachita, or commonplace like Cane and Red.

Many of these historians practice history from the bottom up, focusing on events in a particular area or the activities of a single regiment. They have invaded Deep South towns and villages to uncover evidence of the complex, almost Byzantine, political, economic and social relationships that intimately affected military operations in this vast and, after the fall of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, isolated area.

Jeffrey Prushankin has joined the ranks of these groundbreaking historians with A Crisis in Confederate Command: Edmund Kirby Smith, Richard Taylor and the Army of the Trans-Mississippi. This is an excellent monograph focusing on the cumbersome Confederate command structure that so adversely affected the relationship between the region’s two highest ranking military officers, Louisiana patrician Richard Taylor and vainglorious Floridian Edmund Kirby Smith. Prushankin also argues that the personal and professional feud that festered between them seriously impeded the Confederacy’s response to the Union’s largest incursion into the region, Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks’ Red River campaign in the spring of 1864.

Prushankin deftly chronicles the evolution of the feud and persuasively argues that its seeds were sown long before the two soldiers met each other. A careful analysis of the strategy and battlefield tactics employed by both men leads Prushankin to conclude that they were good soldiers and sincere in their beliefs, but trying to make them effective partners in command proved to be disastrous.

Taylor, the son of Mexican War hero and president Zachary Taylor, spurned military service for the life of a Southern aristocrat and politician. When the war broke out, a family friendship with Jefferson Davis helped him become colonel of the 9th Louisiana Infantry, which was sent to Virginia in 1861. Arriving too late to fight at Manassas, Taylor’s regiment became part of Brig. Gen. Richard Ewell’s Division. Ewell found Taylor to be good company and sharp minded, and they spent hours talking about military history and tactics. From these discussions, Taylor learned the importance of topography and the value of devising two battle plans, one for attack and one for defense.

A spring campaign in the Shenandoah Valley with Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson gave Taylor insight into the value of speed and efficiency of marching in order to concentrate his forces and overcome numerical superiority. In the Trans-Mississippi, Taylor would boldly divide his command, carefully select the ground on which to fight and move his force by rapid march to strike and aggressively pursue a divided foe.

Edmund Kirby Smith was cut from a different cloth. A veteran of the Mexican War, Smith repeatedly chose to concentrate his forces before offering battle, stressed the value of defense and relied heavily upon interior lines as the only way the South could prevail over the manpower and materiel superiority of the North. His military mentor was General Joseph E. Johnston, whom he served as adjutant, and Smith mirrored Johnston’s strategy of feint and maneuver throughout his military career.

Prushankin identifies the critical issue that separated Taylor and Smith: Taylor was committed to defending his native state of Louisiana and that loyalty colored all his military decisions. “Smith was more than just the commanding general,” Prushankin writes, “he was the political representative of the Confederate government. The dual role forced Smith to balance his duties as a military man with those of a statesman.” Beset by governors determined to exercise their states’ rights and reluctant to allow militia troops to fight far from home, Smith was responsible for defending the entire Trans-Mississippi with too few troops and too little resources.

Early in 1864, Taylor’s spies in New Orleans reported that the Federals planned to launch a major offensive along the Red River in the spring. Banks and 30,000 soldiers, along with Admiral David Dixon Porter’s flotilla of gunboats, would move in concert with 12,000 troops under Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele coming down from Arkansas to meet at Shreveport, the capital of Louisiana.

Each man planned a campaign congruent with his character. Smith proposed a defensive campaign centered on holding the capital. Taylor wanted to attack the Union forces before they ever entered the Red River valley and delay them long enough to allow the water levels to fall so the Union gunboats could not ascend the Red River, thus halting the invasion before it could start.

Prushankin’s prose is sturdy and straightforward, with occasional digressions into the eloquent. His lyrical opening to the prologue transports the reader deep into the humid bayou country of Louisiana where most of the book’s action takes place: “By dawn, the Louisiana summer rain had slackened enough to let the small boat continue on its way through the mist that shrouded Bayou Courtableau. Four black oarsmen labored to navigate the tangle of cypress trees and Spanish moss that bowed across the sluggish branch of the Atchafalaya.”

The Red River campaign gets thorough treatment. Prushankin credits Taylor’s initiative for the Confederate victories at Mansfield and Pleasant Hill. He also demonstrates that neither general cornered the market on correct decision making. Taylor showed a lapse in strategic judgment at Yellow Bayou, and Smith blundered at Jenkins Ferry, leading Prushankin to conclude that “Smith’s boast that he would pursue Steele all the way to Little Rock echoed along the Saline like the rattling of a tarnished sword.”

Overall, however, Prushankin comes down hard on Smith. “The Confederates could certainly have accomplished more if Smith had not been so preoccupied with victory in Arkansas and Missouri as a means of restoring his faded reputation,” Prushankin writes. “Smith’s pride, poor judgment, and lack of military skill prevented Taylor from turning those victories into a campaign that would aid the Confederate war effort east of the river.”

Beyond the drama swirling around the book’s two leading actors, Prushankin brings to life a cast of Borgialike supporting characters who seem to proliferate in the region’s fetid humidity—patricians like the aged Theophilus Holmes, exotics like Camile J. Polignac and Machiavellian figures like Dr. Solomon A. Smith, General Smith’s personal surgeon. There are also capable and loyal dusty-boot soldiers like Tom Green, the hard-riding Lone Star cavalry commander, hard-marching fellow Texan John G. Walker and aristocratic Alfred Mouton, whose intrepid Louisiana Brigade would have gladly advanced step-for-step beside Armistead’s Virginians at Gettysburg.

Prushankin’s concluding chapter describes how the Taylor-Smith feud lived on after the war in their memoirs and the writings of other Confederate veterans. Major General John G. Walker, who fought in the Trans-Mississippi under both men, probably summed things up appropriately when he concluded, “Unfortunately for the Confederacy, General E.K. Smith was not the leader to comprehend the true line of action.”


Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here