Red River: Banks Tries Returning to Alexandria

April 21, 1864 – Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federals moved out of Grand Ecore, Louisiana, while struggling to salvage one of their best gunboats.

Major General Nathaniel P. Banks | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

After his solid victory at Pleasant Hill, Banks decided not to press his advantage but instead retreat to Grand Ecore. As his troops and Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s naval flotilla on the Red River fell back, the U.S.S. Eastport was severely damaged by a torpedo. Federal carpenters worked nonstop for six days to try refloating the Eastport, and she was finally relaunched on the 21st. However, the gunboat grounded eight times over the next 60 miles.

Porter’s massive flotilla was in serious danger of being stuck in the falling Red River. Moreover, Banks feared that Lieutenant General Richard Taylor’s Confederates would attack again, unaware that three of Taylor’s divisions had been sent to Arkansas. This left just 5,000 Confederates to face Banks’s 30,000, but Taylor still looked to attack and Banks still looked to retreat.

In addition, Banks was being pressured by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant to end his campaign, as Grant had told Banks over a month ago that Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith’s 10,000 troops borrowed from Major General William T. Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee had to be returned by April 15. Banks argued that he could not return the men until Porter’s flotilla was out of harm’s way.

News of Banks’s failure to capture Shreveport had not yet reached Grant at his Culpeper, Virginia, headquarters, when he wrote Banks on the 18th. Grant expected Banks to turn east as soon as he captured Shreveport and advance on Mobile, Alabama. Grant wrote, “You cannot start too soon. All I would now add is that you commence the concentration of your force at once. Preserve a profound secrecy of what you intend doing, and start at the earliest possible moment.”

The next day, Banks issued orders for his force to fall back to Alexandria. They began moving out on the 21st, discarding any equipment that might slow their march. That same day, a messenger from Sherman arrived to request that Banks return A.J. Smith’s Federals to Vicksburg. Banks gave him a message for Sherman: “He refused to return Smith’s command. The naval force is caught in low water with shoals above and below.”

When this news reached Grant, he told Sherman that it “satisfies me of what I always believe, that forces sent to Banks would be lost for our spring campaign. You will have to make your calculations now leaving A.J. Smith out. Do not let this delay or embarrass, however. Leave for him, if he should return, such directions as you deem more advisable. He may return in time to be thrown in somewhere, very opportunely.”

Banks’s Federals stopped at Grand Ecore long enough to burn the main warehouse there. The fire quickly spread to other buildings until the entire town was destroyed. Meanwhile, A.J. Smith’s Federals moved out from Natchitoches and burned that town as well.

The Federals moved quickly amid rumors that Taylor was closing in on them with 25,000 men. They reached Cloutierville on the 22nd, having retreated 32 miles since the Battle of Mansfield. Vengeful Federal soldiers burned nearly every home, barn, warehouse, and cotton gin in their path. Such wanton destruction enraged Confederate Louisianans, most notably Taylor.

The outnumbered Confederates could not give battle, but they harassed the Federals on the retreat, forcing A.J. Smith to deploy his rear guard to fend them off. Meanwhile, a Confederate cavalry division under Brigadier General Hamilton P. Bee worked its way around to Banks’s front and secured high ground overlooking Monett’s Ferry on the Cane River, a tributary of the Red. The Federals needed the ferry to cross the Cane.

On the morning of the 23rd, Brigadier General William H. Emory’s Federals approached Monett’s Ferry (also known as Cane River Crossing). His cavalry “skirmished handsomely and briskly, driving in the enemy’s pickets until they got to the line of battle occupied by the enemy, which was very strong and defended by two batteries of eight pieces each, which crossed their fire on an open field, through which it was necessary to pass before we could reach the enemy’s position.”

Emory noted the Confederates on the bluffs across the river and bombarded them with artillery while two brigades went looking for another crossing. Troops under Brigadier General Henry W. Birge found an unguarded crossing about three miles upstream but, as Emory reported:

“The ground over which Birge had to pass was exceedingly difficult, traversed by muddy bayous, high and sharp ridges covered by a dense growth of pink, and other topographical difficulties. His progress was necessarily very slow and tedious, and he did not get into position until late afternoon.”

Birge’s Federals began firing on Bee’s left flank. This unexpected attack and the artillery fire in front compelled the Confederates to retreat. The Federals built a pontoon bridge across the Cane, allowing Banks’s army to cross the next day and continue their retreat to Alexandria. Federals suffered about 300 casualties in this fight, while Confederates lost about 50.

Taylor lodged several complaints against Bee’s conduct in the engagement, such as sending a brigade to guard a wagon train “for the safety of which I had amply provided for,” building no earthworks or other defenses, massing his troops in the center “where the enemy were certain not to make any decided effort,” and falling back 30 miles instead of counterattacking.

By the 25th, Banks’s exhausted, demoralized troops arrived at Alexandria, the starting point of their failed effort to capture Shreveport. But Taylor’s Confederates still operated in the vicinity, and Porter’s flotilla was still in danger of being trapped above the Red River rapids. Confederate forces attacked the vessels from the riverbanks, inflicting serious damage.

Federal Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck notified Grant of Banks’s failure, which had been relayed to Halleck by Porter. Halleck told Grant, “Whatever may be said, the army there has met with a great defeat and is much demoralized.” Actually, the army had not met with any defeat except at Mansfield, but Banks retreated anyway. Halleck wrote that Porter “speaks in strong terms of Banks’ mismanagement and of the good conduct of A.J. Smith and his corps. He fears that if Smith is withdrawn Banks will retreat still farther.”

Grant replied, “A.J. Smith will have to stay with General Banks until the gunboats are out of difficulty… Banks ought to be ordered to New Orleans and have all further execution on the Red River in other hands.” Grant then stated that he had received two reports giving “deplorable accounts of General Banks’ mismanagement.” These, along with Banks’s own report on the campaign “clearly show all his disasters to be attributable to his incompetency.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20649; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 111; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 395; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 1139-68, 1197-217, 1237-57; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 420, 422-24; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 66-67, 70; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 485-88; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 194

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North Carolina: Confederates Reclaim Plymouth

April 20, 1864 – Confederate army and navy forces regained a town that enabled them to open the vital Roanoke River to commerce on the North Carolina coast.

By dawn, the C.S.S. Albemarle had cleared the Roanoke River of Federal gunboats, enabling Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke’s Confederate infantry to launch an all-out assault on the Federal fortifications at Plymouth. Hoke’s troops had spent the 19th getting into assault positions, with one of his brigades poised to attack Fort Williams from the east. Brigadier General Henry W. Wessells, commanding the Federal forces, reported that–

“… the enemy was very active, moving in different directions, withdrawing most of his force from the vicinity of Fort Gray, and apparently making a serious demonstration on my right. This state of things continued until dark, when the enemy in strong force succeeded in effecting the crossing of Coneby Creek below the town, and massed his column on my left. This disaster was unexplained, and placed me in a most critical position.”

Gen R.F. Hoke | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Hoke planned for his troops to demonstrate against the Federal right while attacking the Federal left. Wessells spent the night shifting troops to prepare for attacks from either direction, even though he was outnumbered by more than two-to-one. When the Confederates charged on the left and pushed the forward Federal line back, Wessells asked to confer with Hoke.

Wessells wrote that Hoke demanded unconditional surrender, and, “In failure of this, indiscriminate slaughter was intimated.” Despite Hoke’s efforts to be “courteous and soldierlike,” Wessells refused the demand. He reported:

“I was now completely enveloped on every side, Fort Williams, an inclosed work in the center of the line, being my only hope. This was well understood by the enemy, and in less than an hour a cannonade of shot and shell was opened upon it from four different directions. This terrible fire had to be endured without reply, as no man could live at the guns…

“This condition of affairs could not be long endured without a reckless sacrifice of life; no relief could be expected, and in compliance with the earnest desire of every officer I consented to hoist a white flag, and at 10 a.m. of April 20 I had the mortification of surrendering my post to the enemy with all it contained.”

The retaking of Plymouth was the greatest Confederate joint army-navy victory of the war. It was also the Confederates’ greatest victory in North Carolina after a series of defeats that dated all the way back to February 1862. The Federal blockade of the Roanoke River was now broken, allowing the Confederates to receive much-needed supplies from this key waterway.

Hoke received the official thanks of the Confederate Congress and a promotion to major-general. His aide-de-camp reported, “The prisoners will number about 2,500, 300 or 400 negroes, 30 pieces of ordnance, complete garrison outfit, 100,000 pounds of meat, 1,000 barrels of flour, and other provisions… Our loss about 300 in all.”

Major General John J. Peck, commanding the Federal District of North Carolina, frantically notified his superior, Major General Benjamin F. Butler, “The ram (Albemarle) will probably come down to Roanoke Island, Washington, and New Bern. Unless we are immediately and heavily reinforced, both by the army and navy, North Carolina is inevitably lost.” As Peck feared, the Confederates planned to target New Bern next.

Many of the North Carolina Unionists, perhaps recalling that Major General George Pickett had executed their comrades, fled the ranks before the Confederates took over the works. Some black troops also fled to avoid being sent into slavery. Northern newspapers quickly published eyewitness accounts of Confederate troops murdering surrendered black soldiers in cold blood. Sergeant Samuel Johnson of the 2nd U.S. Colored Cavalry later recalled:

“When I found out that the city was being surrendered, I pulled off my uniform and found a suit of citizen’s clothes, which I put on, and when captured I was supposed and believed by the rebels to be a citizen. After being captured I was kept at Plymouth for some two weeks and was employed in endeavoring to raise the sunken vessels of the Union fleet…”

“Upon the capture of Plymouth by the rebel forces all the negroes found in blue uniform, or with any outward marks of a Union soldier upon him, was killed. I saw some taken into the woods and hung. Others I saw stripped of all their clothing and stood upon the bank of the river with their faces riverwards and there they were shot. Still others were killed by having their brains beaten out by the butt end of the muskets in the hands of the rebels. All were not killed the day of the capture. Those that were not were placed in a room with their officers, they (the officers) having previously been dragged through the town with ropes around their necks, where they were kept confined until the following morning when the remainder of the black soldiers were killed.”

Confederate officials denied the accusations, and the southern press backed them. An editorial in the Richmond Daily Examiner declared, “General Hoke, judging from the large number of his prisoners, does not seem to have made such thorough work as that by which Forrest has so shocked the tender souls, and frozen the warm blood of the Yankees.”

Confederate Chief of Staff Braxton Bragg wrote North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance that President Jefferson Davis–

“… directs that the negroes captured by our forces be turned over to you for the present, and he requests of you that if upon investigation you ascertain that any of them belong to citizens of North Carolina you will cause them to be restored to their respective owners. If any are owned in other States you will please communicate to me their number and the names and places of residence of their owners, and have them retained in strict custody until the President’s views in reference to such may be conveyed to you.”

“To avoid as far as possible all complications with the military authorities of the United States in regard to the disposition which will be made of this class of (black) prisoners, the President respectfully requests Your Excellency to take the necessary steps to have the matter of such disposition kept out of the newspapers of the State, and in every available way to shun its obtaining any publicity as far as consistent with the proposed restoration.”

Thus, the official Confederate policy would be to send all captured black troops into slavery, regardless of whether they had been free before joining the Federal army, and the press would not report on the matter.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 95-96; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 394; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 2444-73; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 422; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 487; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 365; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 793; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 184; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 5

North Carolina: Confederates Target Plymouth

April 19, 1864 – Confederates prepared to attack an important Federal post on the North Carolina coast, with help from a new ironclad.

Gen R.F. Hoke | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

By this time, Federal forces controlled most of the coast from garrisons at New Bern and Plymouth. Confederates under Major General George Pickett had failed to reclaim New Bern in February, so now they turned to reclaiming Plymouth. Confederate Chief of Staff Braxton Bragg bypassed Pickett and entrusted the operation to Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke, who had performed well during the failed New Bern expedition.

The Plymouth garrison was stationed near the mouth of the Roanoke River, on the southern bank. It consisted of about 2,800 troops, including black soldiers and North Carolina Unionists under Brigadier General Henry W. Wessells. The Federal defenses ran from east to west, with their backs to the Roanoke. Four forts guarded Plymouth, along with the gunboats U.S.S. Ceres, Miami, and Southfield, and the army transport Bombshell. To retake Plymouth, the Confederates would need help from their navy.

After months of construction near Edwards’ Ferry on the Roanoke River, the Confederate ironclad C.S.S. Albemarle was finally ready for action. Led by Commander James W. Cooke, the ship was patterned after the C.S.S. Arkansas and expected to drive the wooden Federal fleet out of North Carolina waters. Her first mission was to support Hoke’s infantry assault on Plymouth. As the Albemarle chugged down the Roanoke toward Plymouth on the 17th, Hoke’s 7,000 troops advanced on the town.

The Confederates knocked the Federal pickets and cavalry back to their fortifications. Federal artillery from the forts and gunboats opened on the approaching Confederates near sundown, which Hoke countered with his shore batteries.

Meanwhile, the Albemarle was unable to support Hoke’s planned assault on the 18th due to repairs. Hoke instead concentrated most of his guns on Fort Gray on the Federal right (west) while he divided his infantry for a two-pronged assault. One prong would attack Fort Wessells to the west, while the other would keep the Federals pinned in Fort Williams, the Federals’ strongest work, in the center.

The first prong began its assault around 6 p.m. and captured Fort Wessells within two hours. General Wessells reported:

“This work, after a desperate resistance, was surrendered, and, as I have understood, under a threat of no quarter. Its gallant commander, Captain Chapin, 85th New York Volunteers, fell nobly at his post, and Colonel Mercer, commanding the attacking column was killed.”

Hoke sent a message to Wessells demanding the surrender of the rest of the Federals at Plymouth. Wessells replied that he would only surrender if Hoke treated the black troops and North Carolina Unionists as prisoners of war. Since this violated the Confederate government’s policy regarding enemy combatants, Hoke refused.

Around 2:30 on the morning of the 19th, the Albemarle resumed her advance down the Roanoke. An hour later, she encountered the wooden gunboats Southfield and Miami. The Federals, led by Lieutenant Commander Charles W. Flusser aboard the Miami, knew the Confederates had been working on an ironclad and expected her; Flusser chained the Southfield and Miami together to block the Albemarle from getting past them.

Naval assault at Plymouth | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Under heavy fire, the Albemarle plowed through the Southfield and “tore a hole clear through to the boiler.” As the Southfield sank, Flusser personally fired a gun point-blank into the Albemarle, but the shot ricocheted off her iron plating and killed Flusser. His successor ordered the chains between the two ships cut. A young surgeon’s assistant aboard the Miami later wrote, “We fired about 30 shells at the ram but they had no effect on her,” while the Albemarle’s fire tore into the wooden vessel. The assistant continued:

“As fast as the men were wounded, they were passed down to us and we laid them one at a time on the table… and extracted the balls and pieces of shell from them… Dr. Mann and I looked like butchers… our shirt sleeves rolled up and we covered with blood… The blood was over the soles of my boots… When Captain Flusser fell, the men seemed to lose all heart, and we ran away from the ram into the sound.”

The other Federal vessels at Plymouth followed the Miami downriver, out of the Albemarle’s way. The Confederate ironclad spent the rest of the day bombarding Fort Gray and the other Federal works, softening them up for Hoke’s planned all-out assault. The Federals now had no gunboat support, and the Confederates controlled the Roanoke all around Plymouth.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 94-95; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 394; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 2405-15, 2444-54; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 420-21; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 486-87; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 365; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 183-84; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 5; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 78-79

Red River: The Poison Spring Engagement

April 17, 1864 – Major General Frederick Steele’s Federal Army of Arkansas ran into trouble trying to collect supplies outside Camden, Arkansas.

Maj Gen Frederick Steele | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Steele’s Federals, now holed up at Camden, were originally supposed to go to Washington, and then to the Red River to link with Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federal Army of the Gulf at Shreveport. Steele explained to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck why he went to Camden instead: “Our supplies were nearly exhausted, and so was the country. We were obliged to forage from five to 15 miles on either side of the road to keep our stock alive.”

Situated on the Ouachita River, Camden had a port where Federal steamers could deliver supplies to Steele’s exhausted, hungry troops. However, an accident had occurred between two steamers, delaying the arrival of the much-needed provisions. This threatened to starve both the soldiers and civilians in the town.

Steele responded by directing Colonel James M. Williams to seize corn stored on White Oak Creek, about 20 miles up the Prairie d’Ane-Camden road. Williams led 695 Federals, including 438 men of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers, with two guns and 198 wagons they hoped to fill. After traveling 14 miles down the road, Williams directed his men to bivouac for the night while a detachment continued the last six miles to seize the corn.

The detachment returned around midnight with full wagons. At dawn on the 18th, Williams and his men began their return to Camden. They were joined by about 500 reinforcements and two more guns, giving Williams a total of about 1,170 men and four guns.

When Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke learned of Williams’s expedition, he mobilized his 1,700 Confederate cavalry to stop him. Brigadier General Samuel Maxey’s infantry division reinforced Marmaduke, increasing the force to about 3,335 men. The Confederates left Lee Plantation and took positions on either side of the road near Poison Spring, about 10 miles from Camden. Maxey took up positions to the left of the road, while Marmaduke’s men held the right.

At 10 a.m., skirmishing began about a mile east of Williams’s main column heading back to Camden. Williams ordered his men to form a defense line, with the 1st Kansas in the center and cavalry on both flanks. The Federals opened with their artillery, but the Confederates did not respond to avoid revealing their strength.

Maxey’s Confederates advanced around 10:45 a.m., but the Federals pushed part of his line back. Marmaduke’s men rushed forward to fill the void, and both sides traded fire for nearly an hour. During this time, Williams did his best to guard the wagon train, but he was greatly outnumbered.

Suddenly, six Confederate guns opened on Williams’s rear, catching the Federals in a murderous crossfire. The survivors of the 1st Kansas fled, with some finding protection in a nearby marsh before eventually fleeing back to Camden. Fighting ended around 2 p.m. Marmaduke wanted to pursue and destroy the Federals, but Maxey, the ranking officer on the field, overruled him.

The Confederates seized all 198 wagons which, according to a soldier, were “laden with corn, bacon, stolen bed quilts, women’s and children’s clothing, hogs, geese, and all the et ceteras of unscrupulous plunder.” This enraged the Confederates and led to witnesses accusing them of killing Federal troops, particularly the black men of the 1st Kansas, after they surrendered.

Some alleged that the Choctaw Indians under Maxey’s command had taken the scalps of their victims. According to Colonel Tandy Walker, commanding the Choctaw brigade in Maxey’s division:

“… the train fell into our hands, and soon a portion of his artillery, which my troops found concealed in a thicket near the train. I feared here that the train and its contents would prove a temptation too strong for these hungry, half-clothed Choctaws, but had no trouble in pressing them forward, for there was that in front and to the left more inviting to them than food or clothing–the blood of their despised enemy. They had met and routed… the despoilers of their homes, and the murderers of their women and children.”

The Confederates asserted that the 1st Kansas suffered a large casualty percentage because they bore the brunt of most of the fighting, and many of the soldiers had refused to surrender upon demand. The Federals sustained 301 casualties, or about 26 percent of Williams’s command, as well as all four guns. The 1st Kansas suffered a 42 percent casualty rate, with 117 blacks killed and 65 wounded. The Confederates lost 114.

This was the first Confederate victory since Steele’s Federals had begun this campaign last month. It greatly boosted Confederate morale, which had been crippled by all the past defeats in Arkansas. It also prevented much-needed supplies from reaching the Federals, who remained hungry in Camden. Steele learned soon after this disaster that Banks had abandoned his drive on Shreveport, leaving him isolated in the hostile territory of southern Arkansas.

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References

Davis, William C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 106-07; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 394; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 588-90; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 1445-75; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 420-21; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 64; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 486-87

Red River: Banks Misses His Deadline

April 15, 1864 – The deadline arrived for Major General Nathaniel P. Banks to return Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal troops, even though Banks had failed to capture Shreveport and the Red River was falling dangerously low.

Federal General Nathaniel Banks | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant had instructed Banks to finish his Red River expedition by mid-April, “even if it led to the abandonment of the main object,” which was the capture of Shreveport, Louisiana. Unaware that Banks was retreating, Grant notified Sherman that Banks had been ordered to end his campaign, and Major General Frederick Steele had been instructed to try capturing Shreveport on his own. Grant wrote Sherman, “Please give Steele such directions as you think necessary to carry out this direction.”

Sherman wrote Steele explaining that he should work in cooperation with Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s Federal naval squadron. Shreveport and Alexandria “are the strategic points of Louisiana. Shreveport, if held in strength, covers all Arkansas and Louisiana, and is the proper offensive point as against Texas. If able, therefore, Shreveport should be captured, supplied well at present stage of water and held in force, communications kept up with New Orleans by water and with Fort Smith (Arkansas) by land.”

If Shreveport could not be taken, Sherman urged Steele to try taking Alexandria, as “the enemy could not approach the Mississippi River, and would hardly cross Red River as against Arkansas and Missouri. If you can accomplish in Red River what you did in Arkansas, you will be entitled to the gratitude and admiration of all sensible men.”

But replacing Banks with Steele would not be so easy. Porter’s squadron, in danger of being stuck on the falling Red River, withdrew to Grand Ecore after repelling a Confederate attack at Blair’s Landing. Upon learning of Banks’s ignominious retreat from Pleasant Hill, Porter wrote, “The army here has met with a great defeat, no matter what the generals try to make of it…” Porter then wrote Navy Secretary Gideon Welles:

“I found the fleet at Grand Ecore somewhat in an unpleasant situation, two of them being above the bar, and not likely to get away again this season unless there is a rise of a foot… If nature does not change her laws, there will no doubt be a rise of water, but there was one year–1846–when there was no rise in the Red River, and it may happen again… Had we not heard of the retreat of the Army, I should still have gone on to the end.”

By the 14th, the entire Federal command under both Banks and Porter was either at or nearing Grand Ecore. As the demoralized troops filed into the town, Banks expressed concern that Lieutenant General Richard Taylor’s Confederates may be reinforced to attack again. Banks was unaware that Taylor had been ordered to return to Mansfield, and most of his command had been transferred to face Steele in Arkansas.

General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, believed that “to win the campaign his (Steele’s) column must be destroyed. Banks is certainly so crippled that he cannot soon take the offensive.” Actually Banks was not crippled, but he was retreating as if he was. Looking to Arkansas, Smith wrote Taylor, “Great results are to be reached in that direction if Steele can be reached. Arkansas will be saved politically and the reoccupation of the Arkansas Valley accomplished.”

Taylor disagreed, but Smith reasoned, “Were Steele in retreat, the prompt pursuit of Banks would be wise, and might result in inflicting still greater losses upon him.” But pursuing Banks would not “offer the permanent results that would follow the defeat of Steele alone.”

Smith set his sights on reclaiming Arkansas, arguing that Louisiana could not be reclaimed as long as the Federals held New Orleans. He wrote, “Their naval superiority make this result (taking New Orleans) impossible. Prepare your command and organize your trains for rapid movement.” Smith personally led three divisions from Taylor’s command north toward Arkansas, leaving Taylor at Mansfield with a single division and his cavalry. Nevertheless, Taylor began moving west toward Banks as he proclaimed, “The enemy will be pressed to the end.”

Meanwhile, the day to return Sherman’s troops arrived, and Sherman received a message assuring him that the divisions from XVI and XVII corps under Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith would be coming as soon as possible. Sherman also received news about Steele’s troubles at Camden, which he passed along to Grant. Sherman reported that Steele “had had considerable skirmishing, in all of which he was successful,” but he did not seem willing or able to leave Camden any time soon. Sherman wrote, “It seems to me his movement is very slow, and he may be so late in reaching Red River as to keep Generals Banks and A.J. Smith away behind time.”

Sherman reminded Steele that “General Grant expects Generals Banks and A.J. Smith’s forces to come out of Red River for some other work very soon.” Smith was to return to Sherman and Banks was to redirect his forces toward Mobile, Alabama. Steele was to “push with all possible speed to make a junction on Red River,” as “Banks’ forces should by this time be in Shreveport.”

However, Banks had fallen back 70 miles south of Shreveport to Grand Ecore. Banks informed Steele of the failure without accepting any blame: “The enemy is in larger force than was anticipated by the Government,” and the enemy had “manifested his determination to fight for the possession of Shreveport and the country he now occupies, which was not anticipated by many of our officers.”

Banks acknowledged that his and Steele’s forces were so far apart “that it is impossible for either of us to sustain effectively the forces of the other.” But rather than sending A.J. Smith’s troops back to Sherman and looking toward Mobile as directed by Grant, Banks wanted to renew his drive on Shreveport: “If you can join us on this line, I am confident we can move to Shreveport without material delay, and that we shall have an opportunity of destroying the only organized rebel army west of the Mississippi.” The next day, Banks informed Smith that he could not send his Federals back to Sherman:

“The low stage of the water in Red River, and the difficulties encountered in our campaign consequent thereon makes it impossible for me to dispense with your services as soon as I anticipated. Did it not involve more than the abandonment of the expedition I might consider General Sherman’s orders as imperative, but it is impossible for the navy to remove below at this time, and the withdrawal of your command at this moment will place my forces at the mercy of the enemy, who is in larger force than General Sherman could have anticipated.”

However, Banks was unaware that Taylor had just one division and some cavalry to face his 27,000-man Federal army. Banks implied in his message that Porter agreed with his decision to retain Smith, and in a separate message, Porter did, but not in the way that Banks had explained.

Porter told Sherman that A.J. Smith was “anxious to go out and whip the rebels, which we are able to do without any trouble.” However, Porter warned “that I think General Banks is watching for an opportunity to retreat. If General Smith should leave him there would be a general stampede and much loss of material, and General A.J. Smith would be made the scapegoat.” Thus, Porter agreed with Banks that Smith should remain in Louisiana, but only because if Smith left and Banks was defeated, Smith would be blamed.

Porter asserted that “we must hold the country, general, and not have to go over all this again. Had Banks been victorious, as any ordinary general would have been, we would have had no trouble at all, but he has led all hands into an ugly scrape. I did all I could to avoid going up this river with him, but he would have thrown all the blame of failure on me had I failed to go.”

These messages would not reach Sherman for a few days. During that time, Sherman still believed that Banks and Smith, “with gun-boats, were well up toward Shreveport.” However, Banks was now in full retreat, leaving Porter to find some way to get his flotilla off the falling Red River.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20639-49; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 393; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 420; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 66-67; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 485-86; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 194

The Fort Pillow Controversy

April 12, 1864 – Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate cavalry attacked the Federal garrison at Fort Pillow on the Mississippi River, and a controversy ensued over whether black troops were killed after surrendering.

Forrest’s troopers descended on Fort Pillow as part of their raid on Federal outposts and supply lines in western Tennessee. Forrest also sought to avenge Federal depredations being committed in the region; several men suspected of aiding the Confederacy were held without charges, and one of Forrest’s officers had been tortured and murdered.

The fort was a large earthwork on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi, about 40 land miles north of Memphis. Held by Federal forces since June 1862, the fort protected a nearby trading post, and it was garrisoned by 557 Federal troops under Major Lionel F. Booth. Of these troops, 262 were newly recruited former slaves, and the rest were mostly Tennessee Unionists (whom Forrest’s Tennesseans considered traitors). The Federal tinclad gunboat U.S.S. New Era patrolled the Mississippi riverfront behind the garrison.

Fort Pillow | Image Credit: FortWiki.com

A portion of Forrest’s command consisting of 1,500 horsemen under Brigadier General James R. Chalmers attacked the outposts at 5:30 a.m. on the 12th and surrounded the fort by 8 a.m. Federal artillery and the New Era’s guns could not be positioned to hit the Confederates, who took the high ground on the perimeter and killed Booth. Command passed to Major William F. Bradford.

Gen Nathan Bedford Forrest | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Forrest arrived around 10 a.m. and directed an attack in which the Confederates captured the Federal barracks on the south side of the fort. The New Era steamed downriver to replenish her ammunition. Forrest’s aide, Captain Charles W. Anderson, stated that “it was perfectly apparent to any man endowed with the smallest amount of common sense that to all intents and purposes the fort was ours.”

When Forrest’s ammunition train arrived around 3 p.m., he sent a courier to Bradford under a flag of truce demanding surrender and warning, “Should my demand be refused, I cannot be responsible for the fate of your command.”

Bradford asked for one hour to consult with his officers. However, Forrest could see the New Era on the river and feared that she carried reinforcements. He gave Bradford just 20 minutes, stating, “If at the expiration of that time the fort is not surrendered, I shall assault it.” During the 20-minute ceasefire, Federal troops mocked the Confederates from the fort parapets. Confident he could hold the fort, Bradford finally replied, “I will not surrender.” Forrest attacked immediately.

The Confederates easily broke through the outer defenses, scaled the parapets, and drove the defenders down the bluff toward the river. The Federals tried fleeing to the gunboat, but it pulled back under the heavy Confederate fire. The fight soon degenerated into a panic, as Forrest and his officers tried stopping their men from wiping out the entire garrison.

In the end, all 557 Federals were killed, wounded, or captured (231 killed, 100 wounded, and 226 captured). Of those taken prisoner, 58 were black and 168 were white. The Confederates also captured six guns and 350 stands of small arms while losing just 100 men (14 killed and 86 wounded). Federal Acting Master William Ferguson, assigned to investigate Fort Pillow the day after it fell, reported:

“About 8 a.m. the enemy sent in a flag of truce with a proposal from General Forrest that he would put me in possession of the fort and the country around until 5 p.m. for the purpose of burying our dead and removing our wounded, whom he had no means of attending to. I agreed to the terms proposed…

“All the wounded who had strength enough to speak agreed that after the fort was taken an indiscriminate slaughter of our troops was carried on by the enemy with a furious and vindictive savageness which was never equaled by the most merciless of the Indian tribes… Bodies with gaping wounds, some bayoneted through the eyes, some with skulls beaten through, others with hideous wounds as if their bowels had been ripped open with bowie-knives, plainly told that but little quarter was shown to our troops…

“Of course, when a work is carried by assault there will always be more or less bloodshed, even when all resistance has ceased; but here there were unmistakable evidences of a massacre carried on long after any resistance could have been offered, with a cold-blooded barbarity and perseverance which nothing can palliate…”

In his report, Forrest wrote:

“The victory was complete, and the loss of the enemy will never be known from the fact that large numbers ran into the river and were shot and drowned. The force was composed of about 500 negroes and 200 white soldiers (Tennessee Tories). The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for 200 yards. There was in the fort a large number of citizens who had fled there to escape the conscript law. Most of these ran into the river and were drowned.

“The approximate loss was upward of 500 killed, but few of the officers escaping.

“It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners. We still hold the fort.”

Witnesses accused the Confederates of killing Federal soldiers–particularly the black soldiers–even after they surrendered. Survivors later testified at a congressional hearing that the Confederates shouted, “No quarter!” while shooting or bayoneting several men who had already laid down their arms. Northerners generally decried the “Fort Pillow Massacre,” viewing it as indicative of the atrocities that Confederates committed against black soldiers for fighting against them.

Forrest argued that the engagement could hardly be called a “massacre” since he had taken 226 prisoners, none of whom were seriously injured. He also maintained that some Federals picked up their weapons and resumed firing after they surrendered, and therefore suffered the consequences. Others claimed the high black casualty rate was due to their brave defense, as they were the last to flee.

Four of President Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet members—Secretary of State William H. Seward, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles—publicly supported the execution of an equal number of Confederate prisoners of war in retaliation. But Major General William T. Sherman, overall commander in the region, recommended no vengeance, and Lincoln ultimately agreed. Forrest and his men were not called upon to testify in their own defense after the war. Nevertheless, black soldiers used the rallying cry, “Remember Fort Pillow!” for the rest of the conflict.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 167; Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 24, 25; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 187-89; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20657-81; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 392; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 2298-338; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 417-19; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 108; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 484-85; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 190-91; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 277-78

Red River: Porter Struggles to Withdraw

April 11, 1864 – The lowering water level on the Red River became a serious concern for Rear Admiral David D. Porter because it threatened to trap his massive naval squadron in hostile territory.

Major General Nathaniel P. Banks had launched the Red River expedition in hopes of capturing the vital cotton-producing center of Shreveport, Louisiana, before driving into eastern Texas. He was accompanied by the largest naval fleet ever assembled west of the Mississippi River, headed by Porter. He was also supposed to have been joined by Major General Frederick Steele’s Army of Arkansas.

But things did not go as planned. Steele was being surrounded by Confederates in southern Arkansas, Porter’s vessels were in danger of being stuck on the rapidly falling Red River, and Banks had suffered an embarrassing defeat at Mansfield. Banks followed this up with an impressive victory at Pleasant Hill, but by then he had lost his nerve and ordered a withdrawal back down the Red.

Rear Adm D.D. Porter | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Meanwhile, Porter’s situation was becoming more critical each day. As his ships chugged through the shallow waters, Porter noticed that the road along the river was in excellent shape for a marching army. But Banks had taken an inland road instead, where he was driven back by the Confederates. Porter wrote to Major General William T. Sherman:

“It struck me very forcibly that this would have been the route for the army, where they could have traveled without all that immense train, the country supporting them as they proceeded along. The roads are good, wide fields on all sides, a river protecting the right flank of the army, and gun-boats in company. An army would have no difficulty in marching to Shreveport in this way.”

By the 10th, Porter’s fleet was stopped at Loggy Bayou and Springfield Landing, about 30 miles from Shreveport, due to falling water and the hulk of the Confederate steamer New Falls City, which had been sunk to block his advance. Porter notified Sherman:

“When I arrived at Springfield Landing I found a sight that made me laugh. It was the smartest thing I ever knew the rebels to do. They had gotten that huge steamer, New Falls City, across Red River, one mile above Loggy Bayou, 15 feet of her on shore on each side, the boat broken down in the middle, and a sand bar making below her. An invitation in large letters to attend a ball in Shreveport was kindly left stuck up by the rebels, which invitation we were never able to accept.”

Soon after, a messenger arrived informing Porter that Banks was retreating, and the naval fleet was “to return without delay” to Grand Ecore. Porter quickly “reversed the order of steaming, and with a heavy heart started downward, anticipating that the rebels, flushed with victory, with our army in full retreat before them, would come in on our flank and cut us to pieces.”

Porter wrote Sherman, “As I anticipated, the rebels were soon aware of our turning back, and were after us like a pack of wolves. They assailed us from every point, but the dispositions that were made always foiled them. We always drove them away with loss.”

According to officers of the U.S.S. Chillicothe, “at 4:30 p.m. the enemy opened fire on the transports Black Hawk and Benefit with musketry, which was immediately replied to by the Cricket, Osage, Gazelle, and the tug Dahlia.” Porter later recalled:

“Of course we fired back, but what harm could that do to people who were in deep rifle-pits, screened by trees or in a canebrake? The affair reminded me very much of the retreat of the French from Moscow, only this wasn’t retreating; we were getting out of the enemy’s country as fast as we could!”

By the night of the 11th, Banks’s entire army had reached Grand Ecore, and any faith the exhausted and demoralized troops may have had in Banks’s leadership was gone.

Porter’s flotilla reached Blair’s Landing on the 12th, but several ships were either stuck in the shallows or still struggling to get through. Confederate snipers on the bluffs overlooking the river fired down on them, while Brigadier General Thomas Green, perhaps drunk, led his dismounted cavalry in a reckless attack from the riverbank.

As the Federals aboard the gunboats trained their cannon to meet the attack, Chief Engineer Thomas Doughty of the U.S.S. Osage used an instrument he had developed, which Lieutenant Commander Thomas O. Selfridge, commanding the Osage, later called “a method of sighting the turret from the outside, by means of what would now be called a periscope…” This first known use of a periscope helped Selfridge direct his fire. Selfridge wrote:

“… On first sounding to general quarters… (I) went inside the turret to direct its fire, but the restricted vision from the peep holes rendered it impossible to see what was going on in the threatened quarter, whenever the turret was trained in the loading position. In this extremity I thought of the periscope, and hastily took up station there, well protected by the turret, yet able to survey the whole scene and to direct an accurate fire.”

The Federal guns, accompanied by soldiers and sailors hiding behind cotton bales and stacks of hay and oats fired into the Confederate attackers, mortally wounding Green. Another 309 Confederates were killed or wounded in the withering fire of muskets, grape, and canister, while the Federals lost 57.

The surviving Confederates fell back. Green, the hero of Valverde, died at Blair’s Plantation. Lieutenant General Richard Taylor, overall Confederate commander in Louisiana, lamented, “His death was a public calamity, and mourned as such by the people of Texas and Louisiana.” Even Banks commended Green, calling him “the ablest officer in their service.”

After repelling the Confederate charge, Porter managed to dislodge his vessels and continue downriver. But extracting his squadron from the Red River completely would prove a monumental challenge.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 65-66; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 391-92; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 323; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 417, 419; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 63, 66-67; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 483-84; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 193-94