Book Review: The Confederate Military Forces in the Trans-Mississippi West, 1861-1865: A Study in Command

The Trans-Mississippi West’s poor internal communications, and distance from political and military leadership in Richmond and Washington, D.C., meant that the theater’s commanders often operated on a considerably longer leash than their Eastern counterparts. Commanders of the Army of the Potomac were famously operating under Halleck and Lincoln’s sometimes stifling oversight, and Jefferson Davis could be similarly meddling for Confederate commanders.

But despite the wide latitude with which generals west of the Mississippi often operated, Civil War scholarship has rarely given the Trans-Mississippi the kind of in-depth analysis of command structure, logistics and high-level strategic decisions that eastern armies have received at length. 

The Confederate Military Forces in the Trans-Mississippi West, 1861-1865: A Study in Command, written by William Royston Geise and edited by Michael Forsyth, takes major strides in filling that gap. Originally written in 1974 as a PhD dissertation by Geise, it was uncovered by Civil War historian Bryce Suderow, edited by Michael J. Forsyth (with technical assistance from Emerging Civil War’s own Sheritta Bitikofer), and published by Savas Beatie this year. Forsyth has taken care to annotate the footnotes with additional sources, many of them published since the dissertation was written almost 50 years ago, while generally verifying that the work has held up quite well in spite of its age.

As the title suggests, this isn’t intended to be a detailed overview of every battle and skirmish in the theater. Battles are mentioned briefly, with few or no tactical details given. For example, in Sibley’s 1862 New Mexico campaign, the battle of Glorieta is covered in a sentence, while Valverde isn’t mentioned at all. Instead of the fighting, the focus is on the evolving headquarters, command structure and logistics of the Confederate Department of the Trans-Mississippi. 

Geise does an excellent job conveying the extreme isolation under which Confederate commanders were operating, and describes at length the extent to which the Confederate army became the only presence the Confederate government really had west of the river, with all of the additional responsibilities that came to entail. 

The book is filled with fascinating details regarding the logistical challenges facing the Confederate army as it operated in a vast and underdeveloped stretch of country. These don’t just paint a picture of the hurdles any commander would have to overcome; they also serve to demonstrate how thoroughly researched this work is. Some, like the 35 ship navy that came under General Kirby Smith’s jurisdiction, are mostly just interesting factoids. But others serve to paint a vivid picture of the day to day reality of such a command; a fair bit of space is spent analyzing the nuances of distances and travel times for the courier service established by Kirby Smith’s chief of staff, down to the miles per day at which a message would travel.

Some of the more tantalizing pieces are the sliding doors moments with familiar faces who were considered, and ruled out, for senior commands in parts of the Trans-Mississippi. These included Generals Henry Heth and Braxton Bragg, in the winter of 1861-2, and Patrick Cleburne later in the war. Among other Confederate brass, Theodophilus Holmes has perhaps never received as much attention as he gets in this book. Magruder, Hindman, Kirby Smith and Richard Taylor all feature prominently as well. 

In particular, the discussion of Kirby Smith’s decisions around the Red River campaign are fascinating, and benefit from this being a theater-wide study rather than a history focused on a single battle. I would love to see similarly deep and well-researched discussions of other campaigns in the theater. 

All told, this is an excellent work that I’d happily recommend to anyone interested in the Trans-Mississippi West.

The Confederate Military Forces in the Trans-Mississippi West, 1861-1865: A Study in Command

by William Rosyton Geise

Michael J. Forsyth, editor

Savas Beatie, 2022, $32.95 hardcover

Reviewed by Pat Kelly-Fischer

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