Thursday, February 23, 2012

An Interview with Dr. Don Frazier

In September 2009, Dr. Donald S. Frazier participated in a question and answer session on this blog about his Fire in the Cane Field: The Federal Invasion of Louisiana and Texas, January 1861 – January 1863. Several months ago, State House Press published the next installment in this Louisiana Quadrille series. Recently, I purchased this book, Thunder Across the Swamp: The Fight for the Lower Mississippi, February 1863-May 1863 and found it to be a fascinating look at an oft overlooked campaign.

I contacted Dr. Frazier at McMurry University and asked him if he would be willing to participate in another question and answer session for the benefit of readers of The Trans-Mississippian. He readily and enthusiastically agreed. I always think it is fun to see what authors look like, and Don told me that this photograph of him was taken during a trip in Ireland. If you would like to purchase his book, you may order online from as well as from the Texas A&M University Press Consortium.

Johansson: In Thunder Across the Swamp: The Fight for the Lower Mississippi, February 1863-May 1863 you write “With control of the Mississippi’s west bank clearly a key to victory or failure for the Confederacy, much rested on the ability of Rebels in the Trans-Mississippi to defend their country and keep open these lines of supply” (p. 17). It is rare to see a historian write that the trans-Mississippi was the key to anything. Why was this Teche campaign significant?

Frazier: In days past, the historical narrative of the Civil War pretty much pointed to a Virginia-centric interpretation, and not without merit. Most writers dismissed the the Trans-Mississippi as insignificant to the overall story. Some talked about war material being shipped out of Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana in vague and general terms, but only recently have the resources been easy to come by to start quantifying the actual volume and specifics of how much was actually getting sent east, and how it was getting there. The old stories form a trail. I guess I have a unique vantage point in that I read and write about the Texas Frontier, and Texas history in general, so I am able to put the Lone Star State in a more strategic context as far as the Civil War in concerned. How can we expect a Civil War specialist from Ohio or Virginia to know enough about Texas to even make an educated guess? In the end, I suspect we all write what we know. For me, being able to connect the dots between Texas cattle drives and the Civil War has been a lot of fun.

All that to say this: Port Hudson is sustained by supplies coming from Texas. There is a telling photo taken at Port Hudson after the surrender that has more than 100 barrels of salt sitting at the landing on the Mississippi. At the time the post fell, the garrison had run out of beef to salt. They literally had more salt than beef or pork to process. That's why the Teche mattered. Nathaniel P. Banks--"Commissary Banks"--starved out Frank Gardner and his command by passing up the Teche, cutting the supply line of the Red River and the overland cattle trails, and wrecking Taylor's army. People often forget that the Mississippi has two shores.

I’ll provide an anecdote as illustration. At a recent meeting of the Baton Rouge Civil War Roundtable, I talked about Texas cattle drives that ended with intrepid 16-year-olds swimming thousands of animals across the Mississippi to feed the troops at Port Hudson. One of the attendees approached me after my presentation, and said, “My grandmother talked about how her granddad took the slaves to Texas to round up cattle, and brought them back on contract to feed the Confederate troops. I had never heard of that before, so I just chalked it up to her being confused about the details of the war! Then you brought it up here and it all made sense. When I’ve read about Port Hudson, I had never really thought about what they were eating! My grandmother had known all along.”

Johansson: Often, historians argue that the trans-Mississippi was a “backwash” for Union as well as Confederate leaders. Do you think that was the case during the Teche campaign?

Frazier: The Federals always understood that the Mississippi was the center of their efforts, not a boundary between two departments. The Trans-Mississippi, then, was part of a two-bank strategy, as opposed to the Confederates who used it as a divide between commands. As a result, you have John Pemberton failing to grasp the inter-relation between east and west banks, with fatal results. Meanwhile, the Confederate leadership west of the river fixated on retaking Arkansas and Missouri, at the expense of Louisiana. This dynamic speaks volumes about Confederate national priorities and their view of the overall situation. In the end, the “backwash school” of Trans-Mississippi Civil War history sells it a little short, and doesn’t think as globally about all the dynamics as it should. It featured pretty prominently early in the war, but it fades in the end. The end is what we remember.

We tend to fixate on number of troops involved and the dramatics of the military operations and equate size with importance. I wouldn’t necessarily discount that, but sometimes it leaves us a bit myopic. Had Pemberton and Gardner grasped it, like I believe Edmund Kirby Smith did, they might have been able to concentrate against Banks, parry that offensive, and perhaps even destroy his army. Or, had Gardner and Pemberton realized that they held the numbers advantage on the East Bank when the Federals barreled up the Teche, then they might have swept back into Baton Rouge and, as Captain Arthur Hyatt wrote in his diary, threaten New Orleans. Who knows how that might have reshaped things?

The Trans-Mississippi became a backwash, in the end, because a failure of Confederate strategic imagination caused it to become one.

Johansson: Nathaniel P. Banks and Richard Taylor would confront each other again most notably during the Red River Campaign. How do you think the Teche campaign influenced their assessment of each other and their armies?

Frazier: Banks believed he has decisively thrashed Taylor, and was looking toward “the next big thing.” Taylor had gotten that word, though, and was never one to miss a chance to throw a punch. In the end, Taylor’s resilience frustrated Banks and his ambitions to shine in other theaters of operations. He resented this, and figured the Red River Campaign would end this nuisance one and for all. In the end, it also caused him to get sloppy and finally lose his nerve, with disastrous results for Union efforts.

Johansson: The naval fighting and maneuvering during this campaign was fascinating. The campaign ended with the Union navy having an advantage. Why and how did they do so well?

Frazier: The Union navy was a professional force crewed by veteran sailors and experienced fishermen and merchant seaman. They also had plenty of material in terms of boats, weapons, and bold leadership. The Confederates has plenty of dash and pluck, but they had to make do with what they had. In the end, their lack of experience and materiel, the inefficiencies of volunteer crews and pilots, and tepid enthusiasm among steamboat skippers who were unwilling to risk life and property in defiance of the Federal Navy, gave the Union a decisive advantage. When the Southerners lost a boat, there wasn’t a replacement. Not so with their opponents.

Johansson: How did the lack of geographical knowledge hinder Union forces during the campaign?

Frazier: It often boiled down to making a right, instead of a left. I’ve done that with a GPS and iPhone all deployed. It’s these little things that often result in lost opportunities and additional casualties. The fog of war, and all that.

Had the Federals had a satellite view of the intricate web of bayous, roads, byways, and cut-offs, they might have been able to use their navy and army to maximum effect, and taken advantage of Confederate miscalculations. Instead, the terrain favored the Confederates, and provided them the cover they needed to fight another day. For the particulars, folks will have to read the book!

Johansson: There is an impression that there are few resources available for those who wish to study the trans-Mississippi. Did you find that to be true for this book? Which resources proved to be the most illuminating for this book?

Frazier: There were plenty of sources. I couldn’t use nearly all of them.

In general, I believe there are far more sources than people could ever need. The difference is that there aren’t as many bibliographies to mine! There are great regimental histories, huge repositories (LSU alone has about 4,200 collections that hold some relevance to studying the war in that state) and great photographs and images. However, who likes fighting an uphill battle? It’s much more fun to put in Gods and Generals and get into the cult of Stonewall than it is to do archival research and come up with an original thesis about a topic that is under represented in the current literature. Even in terms of tourism and cultural resource management, the Trans-Mississippi is terra incognita, so there are few parks and historical markers to even inspire the next generation.

Pioneering is never easy. Most researchers and writers want to start from someplace familiar. That rules out most of the Trans-Mississippi.

Scholars also must understand the interconnectedness of studies on, say, Reconstruction in Louisiana, the transition from slave to free labor, and politics in Louisiana and then lay on all the operational history we love to study, what emerges is original and important contributions to knowledge. That can also be said for Missouri, Arkansas, the I.T., and Texas, all fraught with potential. It requires researchers to have a degree of intellectual nimbleness than might not be as vital if they were making a rehash of some better known campaign east of the river.

Johansson: This is the second volume in a projected four volume set titled the Louisiana Quadrille. What will be the time periods covered by the next two volumes? When will the next volume be published?

Frazier: The next volume, Blood on the Bayou, will cover June 1863 through February 1864 and will deal with the fall of Port Hudson and Vicksburg, and its implications for operations in Louisiana west of the Mississippi. I am laboring away now, but give me a couple of years.

The last volume, Death at the Landing, will cover the Red River Campaign (perhaps my sortie into much covered territory) but hopefully I will bring to the task a more sophisticated context that previous studies since I will have spent so much time with the personalities, currents, and armies involved.

My goal: to inspire a fresh surge of investigation into the Trans-Mississippi. I do not believe that I have all the answers to what happened in Louisiana during the war; however, I DO hope to inspire a host of questions! My books, my work, are merely one take on the subject. With luck, others will build on these efforts and continue to roll back the edges of the unknown.


  1. A most interesting interview. I do hope that other scholars will be inspired to research and write regarding the war in the Trans-Missis-sippi. There is a world of work to be done.

    Jim McGhee

  2. Since writing this blog, I have increasingly realized how many research possibilities there are relating to the trans-Mississippi. I'm hoping too that more scholars will be attracted to these topics. Glad that you found the interview to be interesting!

  3. Nice interview. If these battles had been fought along I 95 they'd be better known. How could control of the Mississippi not be decisive?

  4. Ha! Maybe we just need to have interstate highways built by trans-Mississippi battlefields.

    It's interesting that so many are fixated by the east bank of the Mississippi and thus end up missing the bigger picture.

  5. The Civil War in Missouri and the extremely complex situation in New Orleans are particularly fascinating.

    Anyway, thank you for interviewing Dr. F. Great work.

  6. Good news is on the horizon. In June, Louis Gerteis's military history of the war in Missouri will be released. It will be the first scholarly book ever published that will cover the conventional battles.

    1. That is great news!! Louis Gerteis is certainly a highly regarded historian which bodes well for the book's quality. That's amazing that this will be the first scholarly look at Missouri's Civil War military history.

  7. A great interview, thanks very much. Really glad that I found your blog, there really isn't enough coverage of the Trans-Mississippi theatre out there.

  8. Glad that you enjoyed the interview and that you found my blog! I'm hoping that my blog will help (at least in a modest way) increase interest in the trans-Mississippi.