European & American History Discussion

The Trans-Mississippi Department Of The Confederacy


Civil War historiography has traditionally been problematic for many reasons. Charles W. Ramsdell presented the areas of most concern at the first annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association in 1935. In that meeting he stated:

This future historian will first have to answer for himself the question, “What kind of a history is this to be? What is to be its scope, where its emphasis?” If we answer the question for him, we shall probably say that what we do not want is a history that lays undue emphasis upon any particular phase of the story, whether it be military operations, or the political and administrative policies and difficulties of the Confederate government, or the socio-economic conditions of the people. We want instead a full, comprehensive, well-balanced and articulated account that will give due weight to all discoverable factors in the struggle of the Southern people for independence and their failure to achieve it.1

At the time of Ramsdell’s presentation, Civil War history still primarily focused on the military aspects and failings of the Confederate leadership. He wanted the next generation of Civil War historians to begin paying attention to Southern financial institutions (or lack thereof), Ante-bellum social/economic conditions which set the stage for Confederate failures, and the roles of Southern industrialists and merchants in the war effort.2

The eastern theater of the Civil War has received the most attention from historians. Even now Ramsdell’s pleas for a wider focus have gone largely ignored. Many reasons cause the imbalance. Southern historical prejudices toward the romantic “Lost Cause” phenomenon are largely to blame. Northern historical willingness to defer to the Southern historians exacerbates this trend all the more. The commanding personalities of Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, and Thomas Jackson offer more tantalizing stories of heroism and legend than Edmund Kirby Smith, Braxton Bragg, and Joseph Johnston. The same holds true with forgotten generals such as George Meade, who won the battle of Gettysburg (arguably the greatest moment for the Union army), when they are swallowed up by the mystique of generals such as Ulysses Grant who receive more glory simply by having a more commanding personality. It is the desire for a “tidy” historical narrative which creates such imbalances. Historians have often cornered themselves into telling the story from some overarching theme or model for students to more easily grasp. The trend toward “tidiness” however, has caused historiography to suffer gaps in the overall narrative.

The subject of this paper, the Trans-Mississippi Department of General Edmund Kirby-Smith, has suffered from this historical neglect. From the military perspective, the campaigns fought in the Trans-Mississippi formed a lesser scope of action than that of the Virginia and Tennessee theaters, but were of no less importance to the Civil War as events unfolded. It could be argued that the events which transpired in the Trans-Mississippi nearly constituted to what amounted to a separate “little” war detached from the principle conflict.

Twenty-six years later, William T. Windham answered Ramsdell’s call. He recognized the importance of the Trans-Mississippi for its role as a resource hub for the eastern theater armies, and also the difficulties the Confederacy had in allocating those precious resources for the furtherance of their war effort. In an article he wrote in 1961, Windham argued:

Students of the Southern Confederacy have long recognized the need for a fuller account of the role of supply in the Confederate war effort. Professor Charles W. Ramsdell, in a paper read before the Southern Historical Association in 1936,3 commented on the lack of attention given by historians to this topic. He said that study of the Confederate services of supply “would not only throw new light upon the difficulties and some of the failures of the commanders in the field but would also reveal much about the resources of the Southern people and the troubles encountered in making them available.” Douglas S. Freeman pointed out the desirability of a “comprehensive book on the Confederate service of supply.” 4

Windham stated further that the works published on the subject of supply were concerned almost entirely with the Confederacy east of the Mississippi. He bemoaned the fact that most of the studies of the Confederacy tended to stop at the Mississippi River, with perhaps a few glances westward. The area, which became in Confederate administration the Trans-Mississippi Department, he felt deserved a better fate.”5

Windham’s lament for the Trans-Mississippi was not unfounded. Civil War historiography had gaps to be filled in the early 1930’s, and remained largely unattended until the early 1960’s. However, in 1954, Joseph H. Parks stepped forward with a biography of General Edmund Kirby Smith—the commanding general of the Trans-Mississippi Department from 1863 till the end of the war.6 Though a biography, it revealed the difficulties Kirby Smith faced when he arrived on the scene, and his strategies of command in both the military field and in the administrative arena of the often confused and convoluted war department created by Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Parks shows how shrewdly Kirby Smith conducted his affairs, and how dedicated the general remained to the Confederate cause right up to the end when his troops were deserting him left and right.

In 1955, Richard Barksdale Harwell, re-published General Richard Taylor’s memoirs7 with an introduction by him along with a section of notes on the various chapters. Taylor’s piece is a good primary source material concerning his dealings with General Kirby Smith and the nuances of the Louisiana Theater of operations in the Trans-Mississippi. Of course Taylor’s memoirs serve as a polemic justifying his actions during the war, the knowledge of his motivations and character are very important to the historian’s need to recapture the spirit of the age “zeit geist” when retelling this particular portion of the Civil War narrative.

In 1958, Ludwell H. Johnson, published a monograph entitled, Red River Campaign: Politics and Cotton in the Civil War, which examined how Texas, as a major cotton producing region, attracted considerable military attention during the latter part of the war because of economic and political figures in the North who valued that region so highly. Johnson stated the reason for his writing about the Red River Campaign:

The writer hopes that this study has accomplished several purposes. First, the Red River expedition should help to illustrate the fact that the campaigns of the Civil War often sprang from a complex set of circumstances sometimes wholly nonmilitary in nature. It is in the origins of campaigns that the forces causing and sustaining a war frequently become apparent. Second, the military history of the war west of the Mississippi has been very much neglected, and this study is designed to fill one of the larger gaps.8

Though Johnson filled a gap concerning military and political endeavors west of the Mississippi River, he did not concern himself with domestic supply problems. He neglected the inefficiency of the Confederate war department’s strategies regarding logistics, allocation, and the infrastructure from which the South operated in.

It would not be until 1972 before a monograph devoted entirely to Kirby Smith and the Trans-Mississippi Department was published. Robert L. Kerby’s, Kirby Smith’s Confederacy: The Trans-Mississippi South, 1863-1865, sought to repair “significant omissions” in Civil War bibliography concerning military and domestic affairs of the Confederacy’s Trans-Mississippi Department during the period between the capitulation of Vicksburg and the conclusion of hostilities.9 Kerby’s work contains a wealth of information on vital statistics of the region and the complexities of the different campaigns undertaken by Kirby Smith. No better study of the Trans-Mississipi Department has ever been undertaken before or since. No doubt by the 1970’s, there was increasing pressure for historians to give serious attention to Ramsdell’s earlier plea almost forty years prior. The old traditions of Southern history were dying hard, but inroads were being made by professional historians.

Four years prior to Kerby’s work, Albert Castel published a monograph on General Sterling Price entitled: General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West. Castel’s work was written for similar reasons as Johnsons’ account of the Red River Campaign and Kerby’s work on Kirby Smith. Castel wrote: “There will be no attempt in it [his book] to magnify the accomplishments and significance of its hero [Price] beyond their just proportions. It is written out of the conviction that an account of Price’s role in the Civil War will prove interesting in itself, and at the same time contribute to the knowledge and understanding of an important but neglected phase of that conflict.”10 Castel, however, does try to “rehabilitate” Price as a more able leader and military commander than history has generally credited him. Castel does an admirable job in trying to recast Price’s disposition, but Price remains too flawed a man for any historian to help much.

The positive of Castel’s, Kerby’s, and Johnson’s works was that their Civil War narratives became more crowded with figures either once forgotten or merely overlooked by their predecessors. Their willingness to strike off into seldom traveled territory brought a new sense of freshness into Civil War theater studies which alleviated the redundancy of the earlier works that had long been dusting the shelves of university libraries. Other figures besides Lee, Grant, Sherman, and Stonewall Jackson were being given their place on the historical mantle. Nevertheless, the progress remained slow and sporadic as the large gaps in time between these works indicate.

However, in 1980, Edward Pessen published an article which re-asked Ramsdell’s question about Ante-bellum conditions in the South from the comparative perspective with the North. Pessen’s essay entitled, “How Different From Each Other Were the Antebellum North and South?” shed some illuminating knowledge on how similar the North and South actually were culturally and economically prior to the war. Pesson demonstrated “that a society’s social structure offers an important clue to its character.”11 Also, Pesson continued a trend of thinking “out of the box” pertaining to Civil War history, thereby helping to alter the longstanding fixations on cultural, economic, and military differences between the two warring sections of the United States. Some could criticize Pesson of “revisionism” or re-telling of history, but it would be more accurate to say that he was trying to “untidy” the historical narrative so as to better understand the inner complexities of the Civil War that have been brushed aside.

Pushing ahead to more recent scholarship, another essay of importance regarding the Trans-Mississippi was Nancy Cohen-Lack’s article entitled, “A Struggle for Sovereignty: National Consolidation, Emancipation, and Free Labor in Texas, 1865.” Though her paper’s timeframe extends to the end of the war at the surrender of Kirby Smith’s forces, it is no less important to know the “ending” of the story than its beginning and middle parts. She wrote:

On June 7, 1865, nearly two months after General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, the editor of the Galveston Weekly News lamented the “recent astonishing changes that have taken place in our political situation.” Two weeks before no man could “have dreamed that the surrender of General Lee would have been followed, in such rapid succession, by the surrender of all the armies of the Cis-Mississippi without a single effort of resistance, and also by the surrender of all of the armies of the Trans-Mississippi, numbering by the muster rolls, 62,000 troops, not only without a contest, but without an enemy in arms against us, within 500 miles.12

Cohen-Lack’s contribution to the “fate” of Kirby Smith’s war department in Texas becomes another promising “block” in a still unfinished foundation of Civil War scholarship in the western theater. It is interesting to learn that when the Union began the occupation of Texas, it resorted to the impressing of freed slaves for forced labor because of fear of their idleness. Her points concerning the ambiguities of the definition of freedom by the occupying Union generals are startling revelations indeed. Much more, however, remains to be done in the area of consolidation and emancipation in the Trans-Mississippi.

In 1992, T. Michael Parrish published a fine biography of Richard Taylor entitled,

Richard Taylor: Soldier Prince of Dixie. Parrish wrote: “Richard Taylor personified the Antebellum South’s most self-conscious class, the plantation aristocracy—a small group of cultured elitists who assumed that traditional prominence and leadership would be theirs, yet forced by the nation’s rising tide of capitalism and democracy to compete with ambitious smaller planters and farmers for wealth and power.”13 Parrish ably portrayed Taylor as one of a dying breed who would be swept away by the changes wrought by the Civil War and Reconstruction. Taylor remains the most colorful figure of Kirby Smith’s Trans-Mississippi command.

Some new work has been done on Kirby Smith as well. Two dissertations have been completed recently. In 1999, Cyril Lagvanec wrote his doctoral dissertation at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas entitled, “Chevalier Bayard of the Confederacy: The Life and Career of Edmund Kirby Smith.” The other dissertation was written in 2000 at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock, Arkansas by Jeffrey Scott Prushankin is entitled, “A Crisis in Command: Edmund Kirby Smith and Richard Taylor in the Trans-Mississippi West.” Lagvanec’s thesis offers little more than a supplement to Parks’ biography of Kirby Smith, but Prushankin’s work offers a detailed analysis of Kirby Smith’s command structure and his conflicts with subordinates such as General Richard Taylor and superiors such as Braxton Bragg in the Kentucky campaign. It would be beneficial for future doctoral candidates and current scholars to add to what these two have presented.

Even more recently, in 2001, John P. Wilson and Jerry Thompson collaborated in compiling and publishing General Henry Hopkins Sibley’s lost letterbook detailing his failed campaign in the New Mexico Territory. The work titled, The Civil War in West Texas and New Mexico: The Lost Letterbook of Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley, is part of the Southwestern Studies Series published by the University of Texas at El Paso. It is a good primary source material for Confederate military goals in the New Mexico Territory and beyond. Sibley served under Kirby Smith in the Trans-Mississippi and was charged with drunkenness and incompetence by Taylor and others. This book portrays Sibley as an unrealistic dreamer who undertook more than he could handle. Many of his other deficiencies are recorded in this book.

Last, but certainly not least in recent Civil War historiography, is Steven E. Woodworth’s monograph, No Band of Brothers: Problems in the Rebel High Command, published by the University of Missouri Press in 1999. Woodworth’s book has a good section on the dismembering of the Confederacy with the de facto decision to isolate the Trans-Mississippi Department from the Confederacy’s strategic plans by leaving Kirby Smith’s forces on the western banks of the Mississippi. Woodworth attempts to explain the many miscommunications between Confederate commanders, the inefficiencies of Davis’ departmental structure, and the reasons why some generals such as John Hood rose to positions they were unsuited for. The squabbling and politicking of the Confederate high command are well documented in this monograph.

This historiography section reveals that much work is needed in all facets of Confederate history regarding the Trans-Mississippi Department and the Civil War in the West in general. The works that have been listed are important and promising, but are too few, and too far removed from each other in time. It seems only one or two monographs are written each decade that attempt to contribute to the western theater west of the Mississippi. The lack of publishing is a rather unfortunate academic trend, which may, if continued, lead to the further “atrophying” of the subject area.

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donaldbaker moderator

I would really love to hear some comments about this article.  Nobody really pays enough attention to this particular theatre of the war.  Such a shame too.

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