Red River: Banks Tries Returning to Alexandria

April 21, 1864 – Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federals moved out of Grand Ecore, Louisiana, while struggling to salvage one of their best gunboats.

Major General Nathaniel P. Banks | Image Credit:

After his solid victory at Pleasant Hill, Banks decided not to press his advantage but instead retreat to Grand Ecore. As his troops and Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s naval flotilla on the Red River fell back, the U.S.S. Eastport was severely damaged by a torpedo. Federal carpenters worked nonstop for six days to try refloating the Eastport, and she was finally relaunched on the 21st. However, the gunboat grounded eight times over the next 60 miles.

Porter’s massive flotilla was in serious danger of being stuck in the falling Red River. Moreover, Banks feared that Lieutenant General Richard Taylor’s Confederates would attack again, unaware that three of Taylor’s divisions had been sent to Arkansas. This left just 5,000 Confederates to face Banks’s 30,000, but Taylor still looked to attack and Banks still looked to retreat.

In addition, Banks was being pressured by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant to end his campaign, as Grant had told Banks over a month ago that Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith’s 10,000 troops borrowed from Major General William T. Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee had to be returned by April 15. Banks argued that he could not return the men until Porter’s flotilla was out of harm’s way.

News of Banks’s failure to capture Shreveport had not yet reached Grant at his Culpeper, Virginia, headquarters, when he wrote Banks on the 18th. Grant expected Banks to turn east as soon as he captured Shreveport and advance on Mobile, Alabama. Grant wrote, “You cannot start too soon. All I would now add is that you commence the concentration of your force at once. Preserve a profound secrecy of what you intend doing, and start at the earliest possible moment.”

The next day, Banks issued orders for his force to fall back to Alexandria. They began moving out on the 21st, discarding any equipment that might slow their march. That same day, a messenger from Sherman arrived to request that Banks return A.J. Smith’s Federals to Vicksburg. Banks gave him a message for Sherman: “He refused to return Smith’s command. The naval force is caught in low water with shoals above and below.”

When this news reached Grant, he told Sherman that it “satisfies me of what I always believe, that forces sent to Banks would be lost for our spring campaign. You will have to make your calculations now leaving A.J. Smith out. Do not let this delay or embarrass, however. Leave for him, if he should return, such directions as you deem more advisable. He may return in time to be thrown in somewhere, very opportunely.”

Banks’s Federals stopped at Grand Ecore long enough to burn the main warehouse there. The fire quickly spread to other buildings until the entire town was destroyed. Meanwhile, A.J. Smith’s Federals moved out from Natchitoches and burned that town as well.

The Federals moved quickly amid rumors that Taylor was closing in on them with 25,000 men. They reached Cloutierville on the 22nd, having retreated 32 miles since the Battle of Mansfield. Vengeful Federal soldiers burned nearly every home, barn, warehouse, and cotton gin in their path. Such wanton destruction enraged Confederate Louisianans, most notably Taylor.

The outnumbered Confederates could not give battle, but they harassed the Federals on the retreat, forcing A.J. Smith to deploy his rear guard to fend them off. Meanwhile, a Confederate cavalry division under Brigadier General Hamilton P. Bee worked its way around to Banks’s front and secured high ground overlooking Monett’s Ferry on the Cane River, a tributary of the Red. The Federals needed the ferry to cross the Cane.

On the morning of the 23rd, Brigadier General William H. Emory’s Federals approached Monett’s Ferry (also known as Cane River Crossing). His cavalry “skirmished handsomely and briskly, driving in the enemy’s pickets until they got to the line of battle occupied by the enemy, which was very strong and defended by two batteries of eight pieces each, which crossed their fire on an open field, through which it was necessary to pass before we could reach the enemy’s position.”

Emory noted the Confederates on the bluffs across the river and bombarded them with artillery while two brigades went looking for another crossing. Troops under Brigadier General Henry W. Birge found an unguarded crossing about three miles upstream but, as Emory reported:

“The ground over which Birge had to pass was exceedingly difficult, traversed by muddy bayous, high and sharp ridges covered by a dense growth of pink, and other topographical difficulties. His progress was necessarily very slow and tedious, and he did not get into position until late afternoon.”

Birge’s Federals began firing on Bee’s left flank. This unexpected attack and the artillery fire in front compelled the Confederates to retreat. The Federals built a pontoon bridge across the Cane, allowing Banks’s army to cross the next day and continue their retreat to Alexandria. Federals suffered about 300 casualties in this fight, while Confederates lost about 50.

Taylor lodged several complaints against Bee’s conduct in the engagement, such as sending a brigade to guard a wagon train “for the safety of which I had amply provided for,” building no earthworks or other defenses, massing his troops in the center “where the enemy were certain not to make any decided effort,” and falling back 30 miles instead of counterattacking.

By the 25th, Banks’s exhausted, demoralized troops arrived at Alexandria, the starting point of their failed effort to capture Shreveport. But Taylor’s Confederates still operated in the vicinity, and Porter’s flotilla was still in danger of being trapped above the Red River rapids. Confederate forces attacked the vessels from the riverbanks, inflicting serious damage.

Federal Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck notified Grant of Banks’s failure, which had been relayed to Halleck by Porter. Halleck told Grant, “Whatever may be said, the army there has met with a great defeat and is much demoralized.” Actually, the army had not met with any defeat except at Mansfield, but Banks retreated anyway. Halleck wrote that Porter “speaks in strong terms of Banks’ mismanagement and of the good conduct of A.J. Smith and his corps. He fears that if Smith is withdrawn Banks will retreat still farther.”

Grant replied, “A.J. Smith will have to stay with General Banks until the gunboats are out of difficulty… Banks ought to be ordered to New Orleans and have all further execution on the Red River in other hands.” Grant then stated that he had received two reports giving “deplorable accounts of General Banks’ mismanagement.” These, along with Banks’s own report on the campaign “clearly show all his disasters to be attributable to his incompetency.”


References; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20649; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 111; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 395; 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 1139-68, 1197-217, 1237-57; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 420, 422-24; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 66-67, 70; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 485-88; 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. 194

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