May 20, 1864 – One of the greatest Federal military disasters of the war finally ended.
Federals under Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Bailey, an engineer by trade, had been building a dam on the Red River in Louisiana for the past 10 days to raise the water level. This would enable Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s naval flotilla to pass through and get to Federal lines before Confederates on shore could destroy the vessels. The dam had burst on the 10th, but four ships got through, and work began on a stronger dam at the upper falls so the rest of Porter’s fleet could pass.
The new dam was breeched on the 11th, as thousands of Federal troops used ropes to pull the ironclads U.S.S. Carondelet, Mound City, and Pittsburgh over the upper falls. All three vessels, with their hatches battened down, made it through the rapids safely (the Mound City and Carondelet ran aground but were freed). Porter reported to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “The passage of these vessels was a beautiful sight, only to be realized when seen.”
The dam was then closed again to continue raising the water level. Over the next two days, the rest of Porter’s fleet successfully passed through the upper falls. Bailey and his workers then began building wing dams on the lower falls so that Porter could get his ships off the Red and onto the Mississippi River. Porter wrote Welles:
“The water had fallen so low that I had no hope or expectation of getting the vessels out this season, and as the army had made arrangements to evacuate the country I saw nothing before me but the destruction of the best part of the Mississippi squadron… Words are inadequate to express the admiration I feel for the abilities of Lieutenant Colonel Bailey. This is without doubt the best engineering feat ever performed… He has saved to the Union a valuable fleet, worth nearly $2,000,000…”
Bailey later received the thanks of Congress for saving the naval squadron.
As the ships began steaming down the Red, Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Army of the Gulf left Alexandria and continued its retreat, moving parallel with the fleet. The Federals resumed their pattern of destroying nearly every town they passed by burning Alexandria before leaving. A soldier wrote that “thousands of people, mostly women, children, and old men, were wringing their hands as they stood by the little piles of what was left of all their worldly possessions.” Reportedly only two houses remained standing in the town.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant General Richard Taylor, commanding Confederate forces in Louisiana, hoped to destroy Banks’s army before it could return to New Orleans. But being hopelessly outnumbered, Taylor had to wait for reinforcements from Arkansas to arrive. As he waited, he dispatched cavalry and other units to harass Banks’s Federals on their retreat.
On the 16th, the Federals found themselves blocked by a portion of Taylor’s force under Brigadier General Camille A. Polignac in an open prairie outside Mansura. A four-hour artillery duel erupted, after which Banks directed Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith’s Federals to attack. Taylor withdrew in the face of superior numbers, moving southwest while the Federals continued retreating southeast.
The Federal vanguard arrived at Simmesport on the Atchafalaya River, where Bailey’s Federals began building a makeshift bridge out of transports and riverboats so the Federals could cross the 600-yard-wide waterway. Around the same time, Porter’s flotilla finally reached the Mississippi River, ending its service in the Red River campaign.
Skirmishing resumed on the 17th, during which the main part of Banks’s army fell back to Yellow Bayou, about five miles from Simmesport. Bailey continued working on the bridge, leaving the Federals to fend Taylor’s Confederates off until they could get across to safety.
Taylor approached the Federals at Yellow Bayou with about 5,000 troops the next day. Banks responded by dispatching A.J. Smith and about 5,000 of his men to meet them. The Federals pushed the enemy skirmishers back before coming up to Taylor’s main line.
Both sides attacked and counterattacked over the next several hours, giving ground and taking it back, until a brushfire compelled both sides to disengage. In this brutal clash, the Federals sustained about 350 casualties while the Confederates lost 608. By the time the fight ended, the bridge spanning the Atchafalaya was ready.
The Federals crossed the river over the next two days, ending their failed Red River campaign. Since its beginning in March, Banks’s Federals had sustained 5,245 army and 300 naval casualties. They lost eight vessels (including three gunboats) and 28 guns. The seizure of 15,000 bales of cotton during the expedition did not make up for the losses or Banks’s failure to achieve his ultimate goal of capturing the vital cotton-producing city of Shreveport. One of Banks’s staff officers described the aftermath:
“Franklin quitted the department in disgust, Stone was replaced by Dwight as chief of staff, and Lee as chief of cavalry by Arnold; A.J. Smith departed more in anger than in sorrow; while between the admiral and the general commanding, recriminations were exchanged in language well up to the limits of ‘parliamentary’ privilege.”
Combined with Major General Frederick Steele’s Camden expedition in Arkansas, the Federals lost over 8,000 men and 57 guns. General Edmund Kirby Smith’s Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, which included Louisiana and Arkansas, lost a total of about 4,275 men. The Confederates had also captured well over 1,000 supply wagons and 3,500 horses or mules. They prevented Major General William T. Sherman from receiving reinforcements for his Georgia offensive, and they stopped Banks from turning east to attack Mobile, Alabama, as Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant had ordered him to do.
The only positive result for the Federals was that they somehow escaped complete destruction. The Confederates from Arkansas finally arrived to reinforce Taylor two days after the Federals had crossed the Atchafalaya. Unable to pursue any further, Taylor issued a congratulatory order to his men for their conduct during the campaign:
“Long will the accursed race remember the great river of Texas and Louisiana. The characteristic hue of its turbid waters has a darker tinge from the liberal admixture of Yankee blood. The cruel alligator and the ravenous garfish wax fat on rich food, and our native vulture holds high revelry over many a festering corpse.”
When Banks arrived at Simmesport, he was met by Major General Edward R.S. Canby, who informed him that his Department of the Gulf, as well as Steele’s Department of Arkansas, had been absorbed into Canby’s new Military Division of West Mississippi. Banks, who had presided over disasters in the Shenandoah Valley and Louisiana during the war, would now serve in an administrative capacity under a man three years his junior in date of rank.
Canby accompanied Banks on the last 100 miles of the retreat from Simmesport to Donaldsonville. Banks, a former House speaker and Massachusetts governor, would turn his attention back to political issues, mainly restoring Louisiana to the Union. Canby, whose jurisdiction extended from Missouri to Texas, and then east along the Gulf Coast to Florida, would eventually set his sights on capturing Mobile.
Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20649-57; 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. 404-08, 412; 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 1757-86, 1792-802, 1820-30, 1840-918, 1928-48; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 431, 434, 436, 438-42; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 66, 68-71; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 496-501, 505; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 723; 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. 195; Pritchard, Russ A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 23, 330; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 816; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 751, 846