Archive | November, 2021

Review of One Damn Blunder From Beginning to End: The Red River Campaign of 1864, by Gary Joiner

30 Nov

Author Gary Joiner is the acknowledged expert on the Civil War’s Red River Campaign. He has written two full-length books on the subject including Through the Howling Wilderness, which we have previously reviewed. Written first, One Damn Blunder from Beginning to End, The Red River Campaign of 1864, is a more straight-forward account of the action that explains the Union’s failed attempt to capture Shreveport and gather cotton for the Northern economy starved for the valuable commodity.

One Damn Blunder, winner of the 2004 Albert Castel Book Award, is a volume in the American Crisis Series which seeks to offer concise overviews of important persons, events, and themes on the Civil War era. Joiner chose William Sherman’s colorful quotation on the campaign as the book’s title which was an apt description of the operation from both the Union and Confederate points of view. Shreveport was the fourth of four cities being targeted by Union forces in the spring of 1864 after Richmond, Atlanta, and Mobile. Lincoln’s administration favored the campaign to help establish Federal rule throughout Louisiana as well as to capture the most important city west of the Mississippi River. More importantly, this endeavor would allow Union forces to gather hundreds of bales of cotton to supply desperate Northern mills which were experiencing acute shortages of the fiber. Nathaniel Banks, a political general of the highest order, was selected to orchestrate the campaign and he knew the person who could procure this valuable commodity would reap huge political rewards. Banks planned a three pronged approach, the greatest combined army and navy operation to date, that would have overwhelming superiority to achieve victory. Faulty decision making and the river itself would prove to be obstacles the Union forces could not overcome.

Confederate leadership had its own issues as its two primary leaders were at odds with one another. Overall commander Kirby Smith preferred a passive defense that relied on field fortifications whereas Richard Taylor preferred an active offensive to drive the Union forces away. Failure to agree on a course of action prevented Southern forces from achieving a more decisive victory. Taylor’s forces halted Union forces at Mansfield as Banks’s troops were too far spread out, preventing the Union force from bringing its superior numbers to bear. Banks decided to retreat back to the safety of his gunboats although many of his men preferred to fight.  Banks’s earlier decision to march to Shreveport on a road further away from his fleet also proved detrimental. On the Confederate side, Smith ordered several of Taylor’s divisions northward to handle a threat from Arkansas which prevented Taylor from having adequate numbers to seriously challenge Banks’s escape. Union Naval forces under David Porter had their own issues due to falling water levels, manipulated by the Confederates. The massive ironclad Eastport was scuttled and several supply ships were lost. Only the efforts of Army Engineer Thomas Bailey, who’s hastily constructed dam which rose water levels, allowed Porter’s flotilla to escape complete destruction.

One Damn Blunder provides an excellent summary of the campaign from all perspectives without getting bogged down with too much detail and repetition as does the more thorough Through the Howling Wilderness. Joiner’s narrative is clear, allowing the reader to fully understand the campaign and his expert analysis places proper blame and credit where it is due. This book is highly recommended for anyone wanting a brief (150 pages of text) synopsis of an important, but rarely studied operation of the Civil War.


Best Books on the Battle of Shiloh

9 Nov

Regular readers of this blog are well aware of our continued interest in the Civil War battle of Shiloh.  We have reviewed numerous books and provided a historic tour of the battlefield. We have always been fascinated by the Confederacy’s failed attempt to reverse the course of the war in the Western Theater in early 1862 by uniting all available forces for a surprise attack on Union forces encamped at Shiloh. This blog seeks to list the best books on the battle in one place for those seeking an understanding of the literature involved. You can read more in-depth reviews of several of these books by clicking on the links.

Tim Smith’s Shiloh, Conquer or Perish, published in 2014, is now probably the definitive account of Shiloh.  No one is more qualified to write on the battle than Smith, a long-time historian of Shiloh who spent years working at the national park. The book dispels many Shiloh myths and is really the first to fully examine the battle’s second day of action. Most other accounts focus on the battle’s first day.

Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862 was the recently published dissertation of O. Edward Cunningham. Written in the 1960s, it has held up to be one of the better campaign studies of the battle. It covers the events leading up the clash such as the actions at Forts Henry and Donelson, and provides a well-written narrative of the battle itself. Its conclusions and analysis have held up well over the past fifty-plus years. Any true historian of the battle must have this on their shelf.

The most detailed account of the battle is Wiley Sword’s Shiloh, Bloody April. Sword conducted exhaustive research to meticulously recount the battle. His narrative is so comprehensive that even those enamored with the battle can sometimes find the book tedious and difficult to finish. I include the book for its thoroughness and usefulness as a resource more than for its narrative.

Anyone looking for a great read can probably find none better than Winston Groom’s Shiloh, 1862. Although many historians will frown upon including a book by an amateur on this list, Groom’s masterful storytelling and prose overcomes any minor errors that may occur within. In his numerous historical works, Groom shows time and time again how history should be written; telling a great story with captivating descriptions and not getting overwhelmed by the research and attention to detail that unfortunately derails many other historical works.

Other deserving works include James McDonough’s Shiloh-in Hell Before Night and Larry Daniel’s Shiloh. These were two of the earliest books I read on the subject, leading me to this lifelong fascination with Shiloh. Anyone interested in the battle should consult them both. The Shiloh Campaign, edited by Steven Woodworth, contains outstanding essays written by the leading experts in the field on various aspects of the campaign. Finally, Tim Smith’s The Untold Story of Shiloh: The Battle and the Battlefield provides a look at the historiography of the battle and the creation of the national battlefield park itself.

In conclusion, this blog has emphasized that one’s understanding and appreciation of an event is greatly enhanced by a personal visit to the place where it occurred. There are numerous books that provide assistance with touring battlefields, but I find Shiloh, A Battlefield Guide by Mark Grimsley and Steven Woodworth and the Guide to the Battle of Shiloh, edited by Jay Luvaas, Leonard Fullencamp, and Stephen Bowman to be some of the best. Both provide overviews of the battles and solid maps for helping you tour the landscape. The latter book also includes eyewitness descriptions that one can read from various points on the battlefield for a more intimate feel.  Shiloh is one of the most well-preserved and pristine national battlefields in this nation. Walking on its hallowed fields is a moment one will not forget.


Review of Sherman’s Mississippi Campaign, by Buck T. Foster

2 Nov

“Meridian . . . no longer exists.”  Union General William T. Sherman reported these words following his army’s destruction of Meridian, Mississippi, following a February 1864 campaign aimed at destroying railroads and other supplies vital to the Confederacy during a whirlwind march across central Mississippi. The general public usually associates Sherman’s application of “total war” with his “March of the Sea” undertaken after the fall of Atlanta later that year, but author Buck T. Foster explains Sherman first utilized this method months earlier. In Sherman’s Mississippi Campaign, Foster not only provides a narrative of Sherman’s campaign, but provides analysis and conclusions on its effects on the war itself.

Foster gives the readers a solid account of Sherman’s trek across Mississippi. Sherman sought to destroy Mississippi’s value to the Confederacy and prevent future threats along the Mississippi River. By marching across the heart of the state and eventually destroying Meridian, which was a hub of two major rail lines along the eastern portion of the state, Sherman thought he could accelerate the war’s end. Railroads, warehouses, crops, and any other supplies that were of value to the Confederacy were his targets. Not only would this harm Confederate war efforts, it would also cause harm to those on the home front who supported secession. Sherman thought this type of war would actually lower casualties, by weakening civilian support for the war effort and thereby bring the fighting to an end sooner.

In the narrative itself, Foster explains how Sherman mainly succeeded in his goals. His 20,000 men marched basically unopposed across Mississippi, pushing aside weak Confederate cavalry trying to stop him. Since Sherman’s men basically lived off the land, there was no vulnerable supply line for the Rebels to attack. Two Confederate divisions were available to provide resistance, but ineffective leadership by Leonidas Polk failed to utilize them in any constructive way. Polk thought Mobile, Alabama was Sherman’s ultimate objective and maneuvered troops accordingly. The author’s strongest statement might have been that Sherman’s expedition was largely successful due to “the continued incompetence of Polk.” (Someone needs to do a book-length study on Polk almost single-handily undermining Confederate efforts in the Western Theater.) Sherman also had plans to proceed into Alabama, but a large cavalry force expected to join him was pushed back from northern Mississippi by Confederate Nathan Bedford Forrest, who remained a pesky problem for Union forces.

In the book’s preface, Foster states the book’s purpose is “to provide readers with a thorough, analytical study that explains the development of Sherman’s unique style of warfare . . .” The only other book-length study of Sherman’s trek across Mississippi from Vicksburg to Meridian does not offer any detailed assessment. Foster goes extra lengths to supplement his narrative with a thorough evaluation of the events. In fact, it could be said that the biggest weakness of the book is in its repetitive nature of constantly discussing Sherman’s approach to warfare. Nevertheless, Sherman’s Mississippi Campaign fills a gap in Civil War historiography by addressing this little known campaign in detail and with an easily readable style.