Not the type to mince words, Union Major General David Hunter assessed the aftermath of the Red River campaign in a telegram dated 2 May 1864 to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant:
“GENERAL: You told me to write you fully with regard to affairs in this department. I may write too freely, but where great and vital interests are at stake you must excuse me if I am very free. Knowing that your time is very precious, I shall briefly state the conclusions to which I have arrived:
First. The Department of the Gulf is one great mass of corruption. Cotton and politics, instead of the war, appear to have engrossed the army. The vital interests of the contest are laid aside, and we are amused with sham State governments, which are a complete laughing-stock to the people, and the lives of our men are sacrificed to the interests of cotton speculators.
Second. The vicious trade regulations, or the vicious administration of them, have filled the enemy’s country with all kinds of goods except military supplies, and these they have been smart enough to capture. If this course is continued we cannot look for a speedy termination of the war.
Third. The best interests of the service require that General McPherson, or some other competent commander, should be sent immediately here. Port Hudson and Natchez are both threatened, and unless prompt action is immediately taken we shall lose the navigation of the Mississippi. General Banks has treated me with great politeness and kindness, and I regret greatly to say anything prejudicial to him as a soldier or a gentleman, but a strong sense of an important duty compels me to speak. The most intelligent of the officers of the army and navy will, I think, fully concur in all I have said. General Banks has not certainly the confidence of his army…” (Official Records, vol. 34, pt. 3, p. 390).
Several books have been written about the Red River campaign, but the one that does the best job of discussing how a military campaign evolved from a mix of political goals, economic concerns, and the desire to make a quick buck is Ludwell H. Johnson’s Red River Campaign: Politics & Cotton in the Civil War published in 1958. Johnson recounts how the desire and need for cotton fueled a campaign that ended in a Union disaster in the piney woods of northwestern Louisiana in the spring of 1864.
Next time: how the cotton trade led to a mutiny in the spring of 1864.