March 25, 1864 – Major General Nathaniel P. Banks assembled the largest Federal force west of the Mississippi River, but he soon ran into trouble.
Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federal Army of the Gulf (three divisions of XIX Corps and two divisions of XIII Corps) joined forces with Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith’s 10,000 Federals from the Army of the Tennessee and Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s 60-vessel naval squadron at Alexandria. The force consisted of 27,000 men with 90 army guns and 210 naval guns. The Confederates could not hope to match its power.
Banks, commanding the army portion of the expedition, was now ready to march north and capture Shreveport, the key cotton-producing center in the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department. However, besides the delays that had already put the campaign fearfully behind schedule, Banks noticed other problems that would eventually need addressing.
First, Federal sailors were grabbing all the cotton they could find and sending it north for profit. Porter received five percent on all sales, and half the rest was distributed among the sailors. The sailors did not discriminate between Confederate-owned, Unionist-owned, or even free black-owned cotton.
Cotton bales stamped “C.S.A.” (from the Confederate army) were re-stamped “U.S.N.” Civilian bales with no branding were illicitly stamped “C.S.A.” and then “U.S.N.” Federal army troops, who were not allowed to join in the scheme, complained that “C.S.A.U.S.N.” stood for “Cotton Stealing Associate of the United States Navy.”
Second, the water levels on the Red River were falling, which made it potentially dangerous for Porter’s massive flotilla to proceed upstream. If the levels continued falling, there was a chance that the ships could be trapped in the shallows and destroyed by Confederates on shore. Banks and Porter decided to risk heading upriver anyway.
Third, Banks was required by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant to return A.J. Smith’s troops to the Army of the Tennessee by April 15, just 20 days away, whether Shreveport was captured by then or not. Not only did Banks have to hurry if he wanted to take Shreveport, but he would then be required to immediately turn east and advance on Mobile, Alabama.
Despite these issues, the Red River campaign entered a new phase when the Federals began moving northward out of Alexandria. Colonel Thomas Lucas’s cavalry held Henderson’s Hill, 20 miles north of town, and A.J. Smith’s troops occupied a nearby plantation. Banks’s next targets were Grand Ecore and Natchitoches, about halfway between Alexandria and Shreveport on the Red.
General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, was to direct troops from Major General Sterling Price’s army in Arkansas to reinforce Major General Richard Taylor’s force in Louisiana, currently at Grand Ecore. Taylor wrote E.K. Smith, “It will be perfectly practicable at the present time for General Price’s command to be transported by water to Grand Ecore. This would save 60 or 70 miles of marching.”
Taylor reported that because of Unionist “jayhawkers” in the region, “the difficulty of obtaining accurate intelligence is greatly enhanced. The whole country between this and Alexandria swarms with these outlaws, who are allied with the enemy and acting in his interests.”
Having lost his only cavalry unit at Henderson’s Hill, Taylor awaited the arrival of Texas cavalry under Brigadier General Thomas Green, who would be arriving in a few days. Taylor wrote, “I shall assume the offensive as soon as Green joins me.”
On the Red River, Federal sailors continued seizing all the cotton they could get their hands on. Crewmen from the U.S.S. Benton landed at a plantation near Fort DeRussy and seized 13 bales of cotton. The next day, the same crewmen went back and “got 18 bales from the same place, which they baled themselves, using up an old awning for the purpose.”
By the 29th, Porter was having trouble getting his vessels up Alexandria Falls, which consisted of rapids over deadly boulders. Having nobody in his squadron who ever navigated their way through this stretch, Porter later wrote, “We had no pilots of any account, and got along by main strength and nonsense.”
The army transports got through, but some of the gunboats had to be left behind. As the U.S.S. Mound City awaited a tug to pull her through the falls, “At 8:45 tug came with orders from admiral not to attempt the rapids until the wind had subsided.” When the wind died down, the Mound City proceeded, but she “Struck a shoal at 6:15 p.m. and grounded.”
One of the heaviest vessels in the squadron, the U.S.S. Eastport, was brought over the falls, according to Porter, “after a great deal of labor and two and a half days’ hard work.” It would take until April 3 to get the rest of the flotilla over the falls, which Banks later cited as the reason for his delays (even though he refused to heed warnings that the river levels were low). Porter further reported:
“It is very slow work getting over these rocks, but as yet we have met with no accidents. One hospital ship (the Woodford), belonging to the Marine Brigade, sunk on the falls by striking the rocks, but all the rest of the transports went over safely. I shall only be able to take up a part of the force I brought with me, and leave the river guarded all the way through.”
Porter soon received word that Confederates were trying to obstruct the naval advance at Loggy Bayou. He later wrote, “If one (vessel) got on a bank, another would haul him off, and there was not a vessel there that did not haul the others off three or four times before we got to Loggy Bayou–the name is significant enough without saying any more in regard to it.” Porter also noted that civilians were no help:
“The people all along were kind to us as we went up, and gave us information cheerfully whenever we asked it. Only it was curious that their information led us into all kinds of difficulties. Where they told us the deep water was, we found shoals and snags, and where we were told to go through a cut-off we found it blind. But how could these poor people know? Likely they had never been on a steamboat or on the river in their lives.”
The Eastport made it up the Red all the way to Grand Ecore, which was taken on the 30th. Taylor’s Confederates fell back to Pleasant Hill, about 40 miles northwest of Natchitoches and less than 20 miles from the Texas border. When Taylor learned that E.K. Smith still had not sent any of Price’s men to reinforce him, he sent an angry message:
“Had I conceived for an instant that such astonishing delay would ensue before reinforcements reached me, I would have fought a battle even against the heavy odds. It would have been better to lose the state after a defeat than to surrender it without a fight. The fairest and richest portion of the Confederacy is now a waste. Louisiana may well know her destiny. Her children are exiles; her labor system is destroyed. Expecting every hour to receive the promised reinforcements, I did not feel justified in hazarding a general engagement with my little army. I shall never cease to regret my error.”
Part of Green’s Texas cavalry finally arrived, but it only consisted of 250 troopers. Taylor stationed them on the north bank of the Red to harass the Federal vessels as best they could. Another 350 horsemen arrived the next day, but half were unarmed. Meanwhile, Banks put one of his Federal corps on transports, intending to reunite his forces at Natchitoches by April 2. From there, they would begin the last leg of their expedition toward Shreveport.
In Arkansas, Major General Frederick Steele’s 7,000 Federals continued southward on their mission to link with Banks at Shreveport. They arrived at Arkadelphia on the 29th after various clashes with Confederate cavalry, covering just 70 miles in six days. Steele rested his men while awaiting Brigadier General John M. Thayer’s Federals from Fort Smith. Once Thayer arrived, the Federals were to advance to the Little Missouri River.
Federals under Colonel Powell Clayton moved southward from Mount Elba and attacked a Confederate supply train at Long View on the Sabine River, capturing 35 wagons and 260 men. The next day, Clayton concentrated his Federals at Mount Elba, opening a supply line toward Camden to support Steele’s approach.
E.K. Smith needed Price to keep Steele at bay if he was going to send reinforcements to Taylor. Smith directed Price, “Retard the enemy’s advance. Operate on their communications if practicable. Time is everything with us.”
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