Through the Howling Wilderness: The Red River Campaign and Union Failure in 1864

Through the Howling Wilderness: The Red River Campaign and Union Failure in 1864
The Red River Campaign of 1864 was a bold attempt to send large Union army and navy forces deep into the interior of Louisiana, seize the Rebel capital of the state, and defeat the Confederate army guarding the region enabling uninhibited access to Texas to the west. Through the Howling Wilderness emphasizes the Confederate defensive measures and the hostile attitudes of commanders toward each other as well as toward their enemies. Gary D. Joiner contends that the campaign was important to both the Union army and navy in the course of the war and afterward, altering the political landscape in the fall presidential elections in 1864. The campaign redirected troops originally assigned to operate in Georgia during the pivotal Atlanta campaign, thus delaying the end of the war by weeks or even months, and it forced the navy to refocus its inland or“brown water” naval tactics. The Red River Campaign ushered in deep resentment toward the repatriation of the State of Louisiana after the war ended. Profound consequences included legal, political, and sociological issues that surfaced in Congressional hearings as a result of the Union defeat. The efforts of the Confederates to defend northern Louisiana have been largely ignored. Their efforts at building an army and preparations to trap the union naval forces before the campaign began have been all but lost in the literature of the Civil War. Joiner’s book will remedy this lack of historical attention. Replete with in-depth coverage on the geography of the region, the Congressional hearings after the Campaign, and the Confederate defenses in the Red River Valley, Through the Howling Wilderness will appeal to Civil War historians and buffs alike.

Gary Joiner

University of Tennessee Press 2006 ISBN: 1572335440

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Review by Andrew Wagenhoffer, North and South Magazine, Volume 10 No. 1,  (Oct 2007)

Because the two are similarly structured and share so many thematic elements, it would perhaps be most helpful to review this book partly in the context of Joiner’s previous manuscript One Damn Blunder from Beginning to End (reviewed in North & South Volume 6 #6). With his latest work, Joiner has included more background material and he’s also written a chapter at the end analyzing the findings of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. The author’s assessment of the validity of the information contained in both reports is evenhanded, yet I was surprised that Joiner did not find it an intriguing possibility that Banks’s lone defender on the committee, Rep. Gooch of Massachusetts, authored the minority report’s impassioned defense of Banks mainly to curry political favor. Although somewhat more tactical detail is included in Through the Howling Wilderness, the campaign’s battles are still dealt with in very brief summaries. However, other common elements are greatly expanded. The construction of the defenses of Shreveport (the nerve center of the department) and other sites downriver are described in the text in minute fashion. The system devised by Confederate engineers to dramatically lower the river’s depth in case of attack (one of the important discoveries mentioned above) has received its most complete treatment to date here. Additionally, much more space is devoted to the campaign’s Arkansas front.

Numerous photographs, illustrations, and 23 maps accompany the text, appreciably enhancing the value of the book. The maps vary rather widely in quality and level of detail (a particularly beautiful one depicts the defenses of Shreveport) but they clearly serve as an asset to the book overall. Several appendices, comprised of letters, order of battle information, a listing of U.S. navy vessels involved in the campaign, and an event timeline, are also thoughtfully included.

In the final assessment, readers of all stripes should find this book useful. Those seeking an introductory history will gain a suitably broad understanding of the campaign. At the other end of the spectrum, dedicated Red River students already familiar with the campaign’s literature—including author Gary Joiner’s previous work—will likely discover enough new information to satisfy them.

Dr. Gary Joiner