March 11, 1864 – Major General Nathaniel P. Banks and Rear Admiral David D. Porter embarked on the largest army-navy expedition ever conducted west of the Mississippi River in hopes of seizing the vital cotton crop in western Louisiana and eastern Texas.
The Lincoln administration had long urged Banks to move into Texas to confiscate the cotton harvested there and to stop the importation of supplies from Mexico. Banks’s Army of the Gulf had gained a foothold on the Texas coast last November but achieved little else. Banks would now finally do what the administration had urged since the beginning: advance toward Texas via the Red River.
The Federal high command wanted Banks to work in conjunction with both Porter’s Mississippi River Squadron and Major General Frederick Steele’s Army of Arkansas. The mission had four objectives:
- Destroy all remaining Confederate resistance in Louisiana
- Capture the vital cotton producing city of Shreveport and then continue west into eastern Texas
- Confiscate as much cotton as possible, which could then be sold to starving northern markets for windfall profits
- Form Unionist state governments in Louisiana and Arkansas according to President Abraham Lincoln’s “Ten Percent Plan”
Major General William T. Sherman, commanding the Army of the Tennessee at Vicksburg, met with Banks at New Orleans and agreed to loan him 10,000 troops under Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith. But Banks had to return them by April 15th because Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, wanted them to participate in Sherman’s drive on Atlanta in the spring.
Sherman was skeptical of Banks’s abilities, but he trusted Porter. When he returned to Vicksburg, Sherman ordered A.J. Smith to “… proceed to the mouth of the Red River and confer with Admiral Porter; confer with him and in all the expedition rely on him implicitly, as he is the approved friend of the Army of the Tennessee, and has been associated with us from the beginning…”
Porter, who acted independent of Banks’s command, sent gunboats to reconnoiter the Black and Ouachita rivers on the 1st. Confederate sharpshooters fired on the vessels on the Black until they were driven off by grape, canister, and shrapnel. The next morning, the flotilla passed Trinity and bombarded Harrisonburg. Confederate shore batteries responded with heavy fire, disabling the starboard engine of the U.S.S. Fort Hindman.
After silencing the batteries, the ships continued upriver to Catahoula Shoals and then turned back. The Federal crewmen seized cotton and guns before anchoring at the confluence of the Red and Mississippi rivers. The reconnaissance was successful, but Porter worried that the low level of the Red might upset the timetable. He wrote Navy Secretary Gideon Welles:
“I came down here anticipating a move on the part of the army up toward Shreveport, but as the river is lower than it has been known for years, I much fear that the combined movement can not come off without interfering with plans formed by General Grant.”
By the 9th, Porter had nearly every ship in his squadron at the mouth of the Red. The armada included 13 ironclads, 13 tinclads, two large steamers, four small paddle-wheelers, Brigadier General Alfred W. Ellet’s Marine Brigade, and various other transports and supply ships. At 60 ships and 210 guns, this was the largest flotilla ever assembled in the region. Such a large squadron would struggle to navigate the low, winding Red River, but Porter needed the ships to grab as much cotton as possible along the way.
Banks relied on Porter for success, but he also needed Steele, whose 15,000 Federals were to march from Little Rock to join the Army of the Gulf at Shreveport. Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck had urged Steele to get moving, but Steele was not optimistic about his chances for success. He wrote Halleck that he would obey orders “against my own judgment and that of the best-informed people here. The roads are most if not quite impracticable; the country is destitute of provision.”
Steele also notified Halleck about the problem of Confederate partisans organizing in northern Arkansas and southwestern Missouri: “If they should form in my rear in considerable force I should be obliged to fall back to save my depots, &c.” Steele recommended that his army simply demonstrate against Arkadelphia or Hot Springs to divert Confederate attention from Banks. Despite Steele’s objections, the expedition would proceed:
- A.J. Smith’s Federals would move to Alexandria to join Banks’s XIX Corps under Major General William B. Franklin.
- Banks would lead the rest of his army from New Orleans via Bayou Teche to join Smith and Franklin at Alexandria.
- Porter’s squadron would move up the Red River to support Banks’s forces advancing along the waterway.
- Steele’s Federals would move south from Little Rock to meet Banks and Porter at Shreveport.
- Banks and Porter would proceed into eastern Texas while Steele held Shreveport.
The vast Confederate spy network in New Orleans quickly informed Taylor, commanding the District of Western Louisiana, of the Federal movements. Taylor directed his men to destroy all approaches to Alexandria while he established a line of supply (and possible retreat) from Alexandria to Shreveport. Taylor also used troops and impressed slaves to strengthen Fort DeRussy on the Red. The fort was garrisoned with 3,500 Confederates.
Taylor discussed strategy with his superior, General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Trans-Mississippi Department from Shreveport. Smith wanted Taylor to stay on the defensive and fall back to Shreveport if necessary, but Taylor wanted to assume the offensive and drive toward Baton Rouge, thus forcing the Federals to detour their drive up the Red.
But then Taylor received indications that Banks might turn back and instead move east toward Mobile, Alabama. He wrote E.K. Smith on the 6th, “I am more and more disposed to think that Banks will be forced to move Mobile-ward.” If so, Taylor would “throw everything forward to the Mississippi, and push mounted men (if I can concentrate enough of this arm) into the La Fourche.”
Three days later, Taylor wrote, “It can hardly be supposed that Grant will permit any forces under his command to leave the principal theater of operations, yet common sense forbids the idea that Banks would move from the (Bayou) Teche as a base with his entire force without Sherman’s co-operation.”
On the 11th, Taylor once more concluded that Banks would indeed move up the Red: “Should Banks move by the Teche and Red River, we ought to beat him, and I hope, will.” As for Sherman at Vicksburg, “I shall not believe that he will send a man this side of the Mississippi until he is actually in motion.” Taylor concluded that if Sherman did invade Louisiana, he would come from the north, via Monroe. He did not know that part of Sherman’s army under A.J. Smith was coming to reinforce Banks at Alexandria.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 380-82, 384; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 963-64; 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 552-62, 580-600, 1324-44; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 405-08; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 51-52; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 473-74; 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. 722; 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. 192-93