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.
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.
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