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


By William Royston Geise, edited by William J. Forsyth
El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie, 2022
ISBN 978-1-61121-621-9
Maps. Images. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xv, 211. $32.95

The Confederate Military Forces in the Trans-Mississippi West by William Royston Geise was a long-forgotten doctoral dissertation written in 1974. The dissertation was discovered by Michael Forsyth and then published in 2022. Geise served in the Army Air Forces and U.S Air Force, retiring in 1961 as a lieutenant colonel. He then pursued a second career as a history professor at San Antonio College, developing a keen interest in the Civil War west of the Mississippi River.

Geise’s work has a different emphasis than most military history books. Geise saw the military as primarily a bureaucratic organization, with staff and headquarters functions being of the highest importance. He traced the evolution of command structure and administration in the Trans-Mississippi Theater. Geise’s contribution is unique, and Forsyth rightly saw Geise’s work as being worthy of publication.

In 1861, command west of the Mississippi was divided into three districts, leaving each district commander with no superior closer than the War Department in Richmond, Virginia. Consequently, each district commander tended to act independently with no coordination and little oversight. For example, Geise concludes that the far-off Confederate government forgot where Ben McCulloch’s command was assigned. Ironically, it was a civilian, Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson of Missouri, who recognized the absurdity of this command structure and recommended an overall commander for the Trans-Mississippi.

Theophilus Holmes, a close friend of President Jefferson Davis, was appointed chief of the Trans-Mississippi Department in 1862. Nicknamed “Granny” by his soldiers, Holmes was old before his time and not the energetic leader the situation required. Holmes was aware of his shortcomings and was reluctant to take the position, but Davis insisted. Holmes let each district commander act independently with no overall direction. As Geise points out, the Trans-Mississippi tended to be a dumping ground for incompetent officers. It was not until the appointment of Kirby Smith in 1863 that the Trans-Mississippi gained a competent commander.

A major theme is logistics, which are seen by Geise as critical, with battles being mere afterthoughts. Confederate forces were frequently short on ammunition and weapons. The situation worsened after the fall of Vicksburg ensuring Union control of the Mississippi, preventing the flow of supplies and isolating the Trans-Mississippi Theater. Major Joseph Brent, head of the Ordnance Department, arises as the unlikely hero cleverly supplying the Confederate Army with everything from special ammunition needed for Belgian .69 rifles, to invaluable friction primers, to a Parrot gun salvaged from a wrecked ship. Logistics naturally played an important role in military campaigns. For example, McCulloch refused to invade what appeared to be a wide-open Missouri in 1861 in the wake of the Confederate victory at Wilson’s Creek, due to a lack of supply. John Marmaduke’s cavalry raid into Missouri in 1863 had no strategic objective other than to gain forage for his horses.

The isolation of the Trans-Mississippi led to the fear that some Confederate states might break away. A conference of the western governors at Marshall, Texas, in 1863 recommended that Kirby Smith receive not only military but also political control of the area, an unprecedented move considering the Confederates’ stated aim was a defense of states’ rights. The latitude given to Smith’s command, including the ability to conduct diplomacy and trade, was unique during the Civil War.

Personality conflicts are another theme. After the disastrous Battle of Helena, for instance, there were recriminations among the generals, with Holmes bringing a brigade commander before a court of inquiry with the charge of “misbehavior before the enemy.” Even worse, Marmaduke charged division commander Lucius Walker with failing to come to his aid during the battle. Believing his honor tainted, Walker challenged Marmaduke to a duel resulting in Walker being shot and killed.

Geise’s book is invaluable for those interested in the little-studied Trans-Mississippi Theater or for those interested in a unique point of view, also little studied, of command and administration.

Clement Anthony Mulloy, Ph.D.
Arkansas State University-Mountain Home, Arkansas