Stephen A. Dupree tells the story of Major General Nathaniel P. Banks and his term as the commander of the Department of the Gulf during the American Civil War. An important politician and supporter of Abraham Lincoln, Banks had been Speaker of the House of Representatives and Governor of Massachusetts. He was a political heavyweight whose support Lincoln needed, so Lincoln appointed him to a high rank as a major general to garnish his continued support: Banks is what is a called a “political general,” who was better at politics than at war.
Lincoln assigned Banks to regain control of Texas, or at least parts of it, to ensure that the French controlling Mexico (or any other foreign power that had ideas of interfering in American interests) would think better of it – hence the title of Dupree’s book. Banks was able to control only a small part of Texas: the area near Brownsville and along the Southern Gulf coast, and sometimes the Galveston coastal area. General-in-Chief Henry Halleckwanted Banks to invade Texas and control as much territory as he could, especially in eastern Texas. Banks looked for various ways to implement Halleck’s orders but was always thwarted by the Confederates and his own incompetence as a general. He was also assigned to open the Mississippi River to Union control and to establish a loyal state government in Louisiana; in this he succeeded.
Stephen Dupree examines General Banks’ five invasion attempts of Texas, most carried out minus his personal presence. He was with the army that attempted the fifth invasion, which is known as the Red River Campaign of 1864, the telling of which takes up most of the book. The Red River Campaign was an Army and Navy expedition, with General Banks commanding the army and Admiral David Porter in command of the navy. The naval portion of the expedition sailed up the Red River - not an easy task, because in 1864 the waters were low. The main goal of the expedition was to capture Shreveport, Louisiana, the Confederate headquarters of General Edmund Kirby Smith, who commanded all the forces in the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department. The Federal plan after achieving that goal was to follow by invading Texas. General Banks and Admiral Porter should have succeeded in their tasks, since the Army outnumbered all of the Confederate forces in their way. Among those blocking the Union expedition were those Confederates under General Richard Taylor, who used hit-and-run tactics to block Banks’ progress. Banks’ subordinate General William Franklin was not of great help to him, giving Banks bad advice and decidedly not into pressing the enemy.
Banks and Porter decided to retreat instead of turning and fighting with their more numerous forces. Morale was low amongst the soldiers and sailors; the whole expedition was a disaster. Only some lower-ranking officers saved the ships and the army by creating dams and rallying their soldiers. Overall, Banks failed in raising the Union flag in Texas as his superiors wanted him to do.
Stephen A. Dupree tells the story General Nathaniel Banks and his failed attempts to capture Texas with interesting narration of the events and the persons involved. This is not a dry academic tome but a lively re-telling of the story. Dupree provides eleven black-and-white photos from that period, most of them featuring individuals involved in the story. He also provides six maps and a roster of those in Banks’ army in the Red River Campaign. There are endnotes, a bibliography, and an index. This book is highly recommended to those interested in the Civil War in the West or the Trans-Mississippi department, and those interested in Texas and Louisiana history.
Stephen A. Dupree holds a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from Purdue University and is retired from Sandia National Laboratories. He has had a lifelong interest in the Civil War, especially in the Southwest, and is the author of Campaigning With the 67th Indiana 1864 (2006) and co-author of the Monte Carlo Primers: The Practical Approach to Radiation Transport (v.1 – 2001, v. 2 – 2006).