Red River: The Henderson’s Hill Engagement

March 21, 1864 – Portions of the Federal and Confederate armies clashed in Louisiana as the Federals looked to move farther up the Red River from Alexandria.

Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s Federal naval squadron and Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith’s 10,000 Federals had captured Alexandria on the 15th. There they waited for Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Army of the Gulf before continuing upriver to Shreveport. Banks was supposed to meet them there on the 17th, but he was delayed by political matters in New Orleans.

Banks’s cavalry began arriving at Alexandria on the 19th, and soon after Major General William B. Franklin’s XIX Corps of Banks’s army began heading up the lower Teche toward the town. When all the Federal army forces converged, Banks would have 27,000 men to go with Porter’s naval flotilla, which was the largest ever assembled on waters west of the Mississippi River.

General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, had an army in western Louisiana under Major General Richard Taylor that consisted of just 6,100 men (5,300 infantry, 500 cavalry, and 300 artillerists). Anticipating the Federals’ impending drive up the Red River to Shreveport, Smith issued orders to destroy a steamer below the town and plant 30 torpedoes (i.e., mines) in the Red below Grand Ecore.

Gen. J.A. Mower | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Meanwhile, Taylor dispatched his only cavalry force, the 2nd Louisiana under Colonel William Vincent, to reconnoiter the Federals at Alexandria and try to prevent Banks’s forces from joining them. As Vincent’s horsemen probed south, A.J. Smith dispatched a Federal cavalry brigade under Colonel Thomas J. Lucas to scout northward, supported by Brigadier General Joseph A. Mower’s infantry division (under Mower’s overall command).

The Federals set out along the Bayou Rapides (a tributary of the Red River) on the morning of the 21st. Lucas’s cavalry met the Confederate troopers and drove them back seven miles to the southern base of Henderson’s Hill, about 20 miles from Alexandria. Lucas waited for Mower’s infantry to come up, giving Vincent time to establish a defense line and start firing on the Federals with his artillery. Vincent also asked Taylor to send him Major General John G. Walker’s infantry division as reinforcement.

When Mower arrived, he directed Lucas to demonstrate against the enemy front while another force marched around the Confederate right. Colonel Sylvester Hill, commanding a brigade in the flanking movement, recalled that “after a tedious march of about eight miles, through marshes and a dense pine forest, in a hard rain and cold wind, we halted. The men were much fatigued and thoroughly wet, suffering from cold and a severe hail-storm; some were compelled from exhaustion to leave the ranks.”

The Federals got into position and attacked near nightfall. According to Lieutenant Colonel William Heath of the 33rd Missouri:

“The enemy’s pickets were relieved by the advance and placed under guard; a section of his battery, with caissons and horses, captured, and the center of his camp gained without raising any alarm or meeting any opposition, the enemy mistaking us for re-enforcements which had been requested from General Walker. Moving rapidly now, with fixed bayonets, through his camp, we succeeded, without resistance, except a few pistol-shots, in capturing a gun and limber and two caissons, all with horses complete, besides a number of prisoners, cavalry horses and equipments, and a few small arms.”

The Federals continued advancing and eventually captured “4 pieces of artillery (2 were loaded with canister), 4 caissons filled with fixed ammunition, 32 horses attached to the artillery, ready for immediate action; also 222 prisoners, including 16 officers, 126 horses equipped, 1 guidon, an ambulance with some surgical instruments and medicines, which the division surgeon took charge of, 92 stand of small-arms.” Vincent narrowly escaped capture.

The virtual annihilation of the 2nd Louisiana Cavalry left Taylor without mounted troops. Consequently, as he reported, “this disaster leaves me with little or no means of obtaining information in front of a very large force of the enemy’s cavalry.” Taylor blamed this loss on “the treachery of citizens,” and “deserters and jayhawkers” who showed the Federals “a road unknown to my best guides.”

Taylor prepared for a follow-up assault, but it never came. The Federals returned to Alexandria to continue awaiting Banks’s arrival. Taylor eventually pulled his remaining Confederates back north to Natchitoches and Mansfield, about 40 miles up the Red River, which had been supplied in anticipation of a possible retreat.

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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 20604-13; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 619-20; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 386; 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 638-58; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 410; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 51, 54; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 476-77

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