More is being written about the Trans-Mississippi theatre of the Civil War, the states and territories west of the Mississippi River - especially Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Indian Territory (Oklahoma), and Missouri. A Crisis in Confederate Command centers on the two major Confederate generals of this department, General Edmund Kirby Smith and General Richard Taylor, in the last years of the Civil War. In his prologue, Jeffery S. Prushankin introduces the reader to these two men by sharing some pre-Civil War biographical information about them that leads into their activities when the War started.
Richard Taylor was the only son of Mexican War hero and President Zachary Taylor. Taylor served as an aide to his father during the Mexican War for a short while until he became ill. In 1850, Richard Taylor bought a plantation in Louisiana and eventually ran for and won a public office in that state; he was a member of the Louisiana Legislature that voted for secession. He joined the Confederate Army and served with Stonewall Jackson in Virginia, reaching the rank of major general before being transferred back to Louisiana as a district commander in 1862.
Edmund Kirby Smith, a descendant of those involved in the American Revolution (Kirby) and of the War of 1812 (Smith), graduated from West Point in 1845 and served in the Mexican War, first under Zachary Taylor and then Winfield Scott. When the South was seceding, he was still in the U.S. Army in Texas. After surrendering his fort in Texas to the Confederacy, he offered his services to the Confederate Army. He began his service as chief of staff for General Joseph Johnston, who was in command of the Army in Virginia. He was wounded in the First Battle of Manassas, or Bull Run. Later, Kirby Smith was transferred to Tennessee and Kentucky under General Braxton Bragg, promoted to lieutenant general and eventually assigned to command the Confederates huge department of Trans-Mississippi in 1863.
The book’s second chapter discusses what General Taylor had been doing in Louisiana before Kirby Smith took charge of his new department. Taylor was pretty much independent of the department commander, General Theophilus Holmes, who was headquartered in Little Rock, Arkansas. Following chapters discuss Kirby Smith taking charge of the department, moving his headquarters to Shreveport, Louisiana, until the end of the war.
On July 4, 1863, General Pemberton surrendered Vicksburg to General Grant. Other connections between the Eastern and Western Confederacy had fallen too, like Port Hudson, dividing the states and territories west of the Mississippi from the rest of the Confederacy. This situation caused Kirby Smith to be somewhat more powerful than other department commanders and more independent from Richmond, the Confederate capital from which he was cut off.
Taylor’s priority was to save Louisiana and recapture New Orleans. After that, he would consider recapturing northern Arkansas and Missouri and putting pressure on the Union forces across the Mississippi River. Kirby Smith’s priorities were different; he wanted first to stop the Union forces under General Banks from taking Shreveport, but he was not so concerned about driving them out of Louisiana as Taylor was. Once Shreveport was safe, Kirby Smith wanted to use most of his army to march on Arkansas and retake Little Rock from General Steele, then move on to Missouri.
Prushankin reiterates throughout the book that Kirby Smith wanted to repay the political allies who got him the job of commander of the Trans-Mississippi by recapturing their states. This caused Kirby Smith and Taylor to disagree on priorities for the department, and it eventually led to Taylor being relieved of his command and placed on semi-house arrest. Prushankin presents the story of this conflict by showing what happened on and off the battlefield. He shows the battles the two fought against the Union and their disagreements, which were usually expressed in letters quoted in this book. Prushankin also uses material from other soldiers’ diaries, letters, and reports, which are cited in the endnotes.
General Taylor was one subordinate of Kirby Smith’s who was strong-willed. He also had reason to promote his plans, since he was trying to protect his home state, while Kirby Smith wanted to promote his cause and repay his benefactors. They could not do this very well, though, with the limited manpower and resources that eventually led to the defeat of the Confederacy. Prushankin argues that if Kirby Smith had agreed with Taylor and defeated General Banks Union Army in Louisiana, that would have helped the Confederacy more than his plans.
Several maps of the various battles and drawings of the Confederate generals involved in Prushankin’s study grace the book. Most of the drawings come from The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Gratz Collection. The bibliography has primary sources listed and an extensive secondary source list followed by an index. Jeffrey S. Prushankin is a professor of history at Pennsylvania State University at Arlington.
Civil War enthusiasts, especially those interested in the Trans-Mississippi, will enjoy this book that shows what can happen when personal interests take priority over the common interest. This book belongs in Civil War collections, especially in the Trans-Mississippi section. Highly recommended.