March 12, 1864 – Federal forces embarking on a campaign to conquer western Louisiana and eastern Texas approached a small Confederate fort on the first leg of their journey up the Red River.
By the 12th, the massive Red River campaign had begun. This was one of the largest Federal operations of the war, and all its moving parts had to work almost flawlessly for it to succeed:
- Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith’s 10,000 Federals, on loan from Major General William T. Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee, arrived at the mouth of the Red River to be transported to Alexandria.
- Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s naval flotilla of 60 vessels prepared to move up the Red to support the Federals already at Alexandria.
- Major General Nathaniel P. Banks was to lead part of his Federal Army of the Gulf out of New Orleans, up Bayou Teche to Alexandria.
- Major General Frederick Steele’s Federal Army of Arkansas was to move south from Little Rock to join Porter and Banks at the vital cotton-producing city of Shreveport.
The campaign immediately bogged down when A.J. Smith received word that Banks was busy setting up a Unionist Louisiana government at New Orleans and could not meet him at Alexandria until the 21st at the earliest. Smith and Porter therefore decided to begin moving up the Red River without the rest of Banks’s army.
To reach Alexandria, the Federals first had to deal with Fort DeRussy, a work garrisoned by 3,500 Confederates and 10 guns. According to Smith, “It was therefore deemed best to act against it in conjunction, the army in the rear by land and the navy by river.” The troops boarded transports and, with Porter’s gunboats in the lead, the squadron started up the Red.
The U.S.S. Eastport was assigned to “clearing away the heavy obstructions the rebels had placed in the river, and to amuse the fort until the army could land at Simmsport and get into the rear of the enemy’s works.” Porter noted that several of his largest vessels had trouble moving up the shallow waterway. A detachment of Porter’s fleet and the transports veered onto the Atchafalaya River and stopped at Simmsport (now spelled Simmesport).
A landing party from the U.S.S. Benton moved inland and drove off a small Confederate force manning an uncompleted fort on Yellow Bayou. These Confederates fled to Fort DeRussy, about 30 miles north, while A.J. Smith’s Federals debarked.
Back on the Red, Porter instructed Lieutenant Commander S.L. Phelps of the Eastport that after clearing the obstructions, “move up within a short distance of Fort DeRussy, but make no attack until I get up with the main force, though, if there is any force at DeRussy, you can amuse them by feints until the army get into their rear.” Porter warned Phelps to “take every precaution against torpedoes, and protect your men against sharpshooters.”
Meanwhile in Arkansas, Steele continued balking at orders to meet the Federals at Shreveport. After failing to persuade his superiors that southern Arkansas lacked the forage needed for his men, Steele now argued that since A.J. Smith was reinforcing Banks, “This is more than an equal for everything (Confederate General Edmund) Kirby Smith can bring against them.” Henry W. Halleck, who had recently become the Federal chief of staff, repeated his order for Steele to go to Shreveport unless otherwise directed by the new general-in-chief, Ulysses S. Grant.
By the 13th, Porter’s vessels had gotten through the obstructions on the Red. Porter reported that the Confederates “supposed it impassable, but our energetic sailors with hard work opened a passage in a few hours.” The Eastport and Neosho began bombarding Fort DeRussy, while A.J. Smith’s Federals began preparing for a ground assault.
When Major General John G. Walker, commanding the defenders at Fort DeRussy, learned of A.J. Smith’s approach, he notified his superior, Major General Richard Taylor at Alexandria, “It will be unsafe to linger here. I feel most solicitous for the fate of Fort DeRussy, as it must fall as soon almost as invested by the force now marching against it.”
Taylor replied, “If the force of the enemy landing at Simmsport is such as to admit of your fighting him with the least hope of success, the sooner you attack him the better… every hour that the enemy is held in check by your presence in his front or on his flank must be improved to get everything in complete readiness at Fort DeRussy.” Losing the fort “would be a great disaster, and, therefore, we must take more than ordinary hazards in fighting.”
Walker guessed which road the Federals might take to get to the fort and deployed a brigade to block them. But Smith took a different road and moved his forces across Bayou de Glaize. They moved through Marksville and stopped within a mile and a half south of DeRussy that night. Smith assigned one of his three divisions, led by Brigadier General Joseph A. Mower, to attack in the morning.
The next day, Porter’s gunboats renewed their bombardment of the fort while Mower’s division advanced. Walker moved his main force out in front of DeRussy, leaving a skeleton force of about 300 men inside. He received word that the Federal troops had given up trying to capture DeRussy and were returning to their transports. But, as Walker reported:
“Soon after daylight on the 14th, this information was proven incorrect by hearing the sound of numerous drums in the distance in the direction of Simmsport, and as the morning advanced it became apparent that the enemy in force was approaching our position.”
Walker saw that he was vastly outnumbered. He also saw that the Federals were moving toward the fort, leaving the main Confederate force on their left flank. Walker reported:
“All these considerations induced me to adopt the only course not dictated by folly or madness, and however mortifying it might be to abandon our brave companions in arms at Fort DeRussy to their fate, it became my imperative duty to do so rather than attempt assistance, which at best could delay this danger but a few hours, and without a miracle from Heaven would insure the certain destruction of my entire command.”
The Federals stormed the fort and easily captured the 300-man garrison while Walker’s 3,000 troops slipped southward; they eventually linked with the rest of Taylor’s army. As the Federals prepared to target Alexandria next, Taylor prepared to withdraw to Natchitoches, 50 miles north.
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