Friday, June 26, 2015

Book Review: A Crisis in Confederate Command by Joseph S. Prushankin


Copyright 2005 
Louisiana State University Press

After having just read Partners in Command by Joseph Glatthaar, I was surprised to see it mentioned in the very first line of the introduction of this book, but it proved to be a good decision by the author as the subject of this book would have fit nicely as an additional chapter in Glatthaar's work.

This book is the best kind -  readable and informative. Prushankin's narrative flows nicely, making this a pleasant read, and he does an outstanding job of describing the story of the dysfunctional relationship between Edmund Kirby Smith and Richard Taylor as it unfolded in the far-from-Richmond Trans-Mississippi department.

The Trans-Mississippi department does not receive the attention of Civil War theaters such as the east or west, but that does not mean this region did not have its own characters and events, as this work shows.

The major happening west of the Mississippi River was the 1864 Red River Campaign in Louisiana. Often, discussions of this campaign focus solely on Union blunders, especially the ineffective generalship of Nathaniel Banks and his failures. This book shows a different side of this campaign, discussing the controversies, disputes, personality conflicts and insubordination that ran amok within the Confederate leadership in the department. 

Smith and Taylor quickly learned neither to trust nor like each other and this book does an excellent job of showing what a poor working relationship theirs became. That story is the heart of this book - the tale of two generals who could not work well together to maximize the benefits for the Confederacy.

Prushankin examines and explains in great detail the deterioration of the relationship between the two generals. He clearly read through an incredible amount of official correspondence between them, as well as post-war memoirs and writings. The research put into this work was clearly quite thorough and impressive.

Neither of the two generals come out of this book looking good. Smith appears to be indecisive, in over his head and a glory-seeker. Taylor comes across as insubordinate, egotistical and rude. Smith frequently made a decision only to countermand it soon thereafter and Taylor did not always react to these changes in the most professional manner. One passage on page 233 summed this up nicely: "Smith's pride, poor judgment, and lack of military skill prevented Taylor from turning those victories into a campaign that would aid the Confederate effort east of the river. Although Smith's failings do not excuse Taylor's insubordinate behavior, they explain his bitterness."

It seems unbelievable how poorly these men got along, but the author provides plenty of examples showing that it was indeed true. He takes quotes from many documents to explain the problems in their relationship and which decisions, communications and events made it worse. He does a remarkable job of showing, not just telling, what happened between these two by thoroughly analyzing and discussing the evidence, making it clear that both men contributed to the troublesome situation. Perhaps Smith looked slightly worse, as though he had too much responsibility, serving as a departmental commander and Confederate government representative, but one who could not assert his authority over Taylor. Page 204 explains: "Smith sought to direct every aspect of the department but refused to shoulder blame for any failure." To Smith's credit, however, he at least tried to ignore the rudeness in much of Taylor's correspondence and succeeded for a while until his patience eventually wore out with the repeated complaints from Taylor.

Despite Smith's faults, Taylor was no angel either, blaming his own subordinates for failures in his district, disobeying orders, using harsh and rude language in letters and reports to his superior officer and even one time being manipulative enough to delay sending a note to Smith to make sure Smith did not have time to reply. If Smith could not assert his authority, at least part of that was due to Taylor's stubbornness and desire to have autonomy in his district (as he had enjoyed before Smith's arrival.)

Much of the trouble was that while Smith was in charge of the entire department, he focused most of his attention on Arkansas and Missouri (states from which much of his political support emanated) while Taylor obsessed over his home state of Louisiana, especially his assigned district of western Louisiana. Smith generally favored a defensive strategy, concentrating forces and waiting to see where the best opportunity presented itself while Taylor was more aggressive and offensive-minded, actively looking to attack Union troops, especially Banks. Their opinions on the area in which success or failure mattered most to the Confederacy and how to achieve victory differed greatly and neither man could convince the other to change his mind, nor was willing to change his own. There are other examples (such as the usage of John Walker's division) I could add, but this post would become as long as a book.

Despite these troubles, this tandem did manage to win the Red River campaign, repelling Union forces, though not with the always-desired, rarely-achieved decisive triumph that Taylor thought possible. The victory over Banks (and admiral David Dixon Porter's naval forces) was one of the Confederacy's biggest in the final two years of the war, perhaps even one of its most remarkable throughout the conflict, considering the problems between these two men.

The smooth flow of Prushankin's writing makes this book a quick and easy read and his ample research and insightful analysis of the evidence make it a very enlightening work as well. It is a top quality book that presents a remarkable story of a working relationship gone very wrong. I have added this book to my list of favorites (see the blog's home page) and I gladly and highly recommend it to fellow Civil War enthusiasts.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the informative review. Nice to see history as a study of people rather than of icons or stereotypes.

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