By Joe Darby
A while back I was browsing Amazon for books and I saw that Prof. Henry O. Robertson of Louisiana College in Alexandria had penned a new volume on the Civil War Red River campaign.
My first reaction was one of pleasant surprise because I try to keep up with all new books about Louisiana history and this one had slipped by me. Now, I was aware of it.
My second reaction was, “What in the world can anyone write about that’s new on the Red River campaign?” Robertson is one of Louisiana’s more respected historians and is a popular speaker at history forums and seminars. But I have all of the books on the Red River battles by Gary Joiner of LSU Shreveport, the acknowledged expert on the campaign, as well as books on that campaign by other authors. It seemed to me that pretty much all aspects of those battles have been covered.
However, figuring that Henry, as his friends call him, would have done his usual good work on his new book, “The Red River Campaign and Its Toll: 69 Bloody Days in Louisiana, March-May 1864,” I ordered it.
Well, as it turns out, Henry has dived into aspects of the campaign that have either not been covered or have been touched upon only lightly.
His first chapter gives a brief political and social history of the Red River valley in Louisiana, describing the various ethnic groups — French, American, Creole and African American slaves — that settled in this region. He includes fascinating profiles of several individuals who were representative of the different groups, including the Prudhommes of Oakland Plantation just south of our fair little city.
Once the reader has a feel for who settled here and why, Henry provides a good look at the politics of the region and how voting went in the days leading up to secession and the beginning of the war. He includes several voting charts of election results, which for political junkies like me, are essential in illustrating how the electorate — in this case while male voters — cast their ballots in the different parishes of the region..
Of course he touches on the cotton economy of the river valley and then covers the skirmishes and battles, including the big one at Mansfield, the last major Confederate victory of the Civil War. He follows the retreat of the Union army back to the final bloody little battle at Yellow Bayou, near the Atchafalaya River.
What brightens up these battle accounts is the fact that the author has delved into soldiers’ letters and diaries that I and probably many other readers are not familiar with, presenting fresh viewpoints of the campaign on the ground.
The disputes and disagreements between the Confederate battlefield commander, Gen. Richard Taylor, and his boss, the Trans-Mississippi commander Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith in Shreveport, are well told. Henry’s view is a bit more sympathetic to Smith than my own, but he points out that Taylor was certainly not blameless for Confederate mistakes made.
He also pulls no punches when describing the destruction wrought during the retreat of the Union Army under Gen. Nathaniel Banks, including the wanton burning of Alexandria to the ground.
Henry told me that he was of course aware that he was diving into an area “already replete with fantastic histories…I went out and found stuff” that had not yet been examined. “(M)y approach is much more of a ‘war and society’ or social history.”
In short, I say Henry’s book it’s a darned good read, with fresh insights and detail, and if you have any interest in this area, I highly recommend it.