Book tells how bad blood between generals hurt Confederacy's chances

December 05, 2005

Philadelphia, Pa. -- While the Union Army was getting the best of the Confederates on many of the ballyhooed battlefields of the Civil War, such as Gettysburg and Antietam, the Trans-Mississippi area was touch and go throughout the conflict. In fact, if not for poor communication and bad blood between two key military figures in the State of Louisiana, historians may still be talking about great Confederate victories there, according to a Penn State researcher.

Of course, without the great victories, there is little talk at all about Civil War fighting in the Trans-Mississippi region, according to Jeffery Prushankin, lecturer of history at Penn State Abington and author of a new book, "A Crisis in Confederate Command: Edmund Kirby Smith, Richard Taylor and the Army of the Trans-Mississippi (LSU Press)."

"There has always been the notion that the war was won and lost in the East between Washington (D.C.) and Richmond. You can find 100 books on Gettysburg for every article on something that occurred in Louisiana," said Prushankin. "The battles and leaders in the West across the Mississippi River have mostly been thought of as minor players."

Always interested in military history, Prushankin's mother is from Louisiana, and he has ancestors who fought on both sides during the Civil War. While focusing on the Trans-Mississippi's place in the Civil War, Prushankin's research took an interesting twist when he began uncovering details of the relationship between Confederate generals Edmund Kirby Smith and Richard Taylor, which are documented in his new book.

Smith was commissioned to be the military leader of the Confederate Army in the Trans-Mississippi region in 1863, while Taylor was a key military figure in Louisiana who from that time on reported to Smith. The two men came from very different backgrounds -- Smith was an old school "West Pointer" whose strategies were often defensive; Taylor, son of former U.S. President Zachary Taylor, was a highly intellectual military strategist who graduated from Yale, and who wanted to take the battle to the Union Army. He was also the brother-in-law of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

"It was almost as if Smith had an inferiority complex. He seemed to think he was raised to be a key figure in military history, and he was always out there striving for glory," said Prushankin, who studied many letters written by the two men for this research. He noted that Smith learned much of his battle strategy while serving under General Joseph E. Johnston, who tended to be cautious, while Taylor served under General Stonewall Jackson, who was much more aggressive on the battlefield.
"Taylor had covert plans approved by the Confederate War Department to try to recapture New Orleans, and the two men were working at cross-purposes almost from the beginning," he added.

According to Prushankin, many times when Taylor was angling to take an aggressive approach against Union forces, Smith would send troops elsewhere to fight, thereby reducing manpower far below what Taylor needed to reach his objective. And at one point, Smith wanted to execute slaves who were fighting for the Union, which Taylor protested. The Confederate government wound up siding with Taylor, according to the book.

But the nastiness in the relationship between the two men reached the pinnacle during the Union's Red River Campaign on the Arkansas/Louisiana border during spring of 1864. The Union sent Army and Navy troops up the Red River in an effort to move forward deep into Louisiana, while also confiscating cotton and soliciting support for the Union. Smith ordered Taylor to have his troops fall back to Shreveport, but as Taylor watched Union soldiers wreak havoc in his district, he saw an opportunity for a pre-emptive strike south of Shreveport in the town of Mansfield.

Taylor disregarded Smith's orders and sent his men into battle, winning at Mansfield and driving Union troops south. After winning another battle at Pleasant Hill, Taylor's forces had the Union Army and Navy pinned in at Alexandria. This is where things got really ugly, said the Penn State researcher.

"Instead of finishing them (Union forces) off, Smith -- who clearly was not happy with Taylor -- took two-thirds of Taylor's Army away to fight in Arkansas, where Union soldiers were already in retreat," said Prushankin. "By the time Smith sent Taylor's soldiers back to Louisiana, Union forces had already escaped. If those 30,000 soldiers don't get sent to Sherman, maybe he doesn't capture Atlanta as easily."

After this, Taylor wrote several letters -- some to Confederate authorities, others to Smith himself -- questioning Smith's intelligence and manhood. Smith had Taylor arrested, but Taylor was eventually released on order of the Confederate Congress, which went on to promote Taylor and leave Smith to "stew in his own juices," according to the book.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 28, 2017