Major-General Nathaniel P. Banks had been assigned to command the Federal Department of the Gulf, with headquarters at New Orleans, Louisiana. His prime objective was to open the Mississippi River up from the Gulf of Mexico to link with Federals coming down and thereby control the entire waterway. To do this, Banks needed to capture the Confederate garrison at Port Hudson, Louisiana.
But Port Hudson was a strong position that could not be attacked directly without great cost. The Confederates there were also very effective at disrupting Federal river traffic; Rear-Admiral David G. Farragut had tried to run his warships past the batteries in March but suffered heavy damage. So Banks, like Major-General Ulysses S. Grant at Vicksburg, looked for other, more indirect ways to get to Port Hudson. These included trying to get to the Red River, a vital waterway for transporting goods to the Confederacy from Mexico and the west.
Banks led a Federal expeditionary force to see if the Red could be accessed by going up the Teche River, west of Port Hudson. This force consisted of about 15,000 men in three divisions under Brigadier-Generals William Emory, Godfrey Weitzel, and Cuvier Grover. Emory and Weitzel were to lead 10,000 men from their camps at Brasher City across Berwick Bay and up the Teche to face a Confederate force in the region. Meanwhile, Grover’s 5,000 would move up the Atchafalaya River, which ran roughly parallel to the Teche, and land at Indian Bend to attack the Confederates from behind.
As the Federals approached, the Confederates fell back to a work called Fort Bisland, near the mouth of the Teche. They were temporarily led by Brigadier-General Alfred Mouton, who directed local slaves to build defenses on both sides of the river. Mouton was superseded by the arrival of Major-General Richard Taylor, son of former U.S. President Zachary Taylor and overall Confederate commander. The fort was defended by about 4,000 Confederates and two steamers.
The force of Emory and Weitzel doubled that of the enemy, but they chose not to attack until Grover was in position in Taylor’s rear. Grover was delayed by fog on the river and Confederate skirmishers resisting his advance all the way. Taylor planned to attack Emory and Weitzel with Brigadier-General Henry H. Sibley’s contingent; Sibley was known for his unsuccessful campaign to conquer the New Mexico Territory last year. All that remained of his Army of New Mexico was his Texas brigade and a cavalry regiment under Colonel Thomas Green. Due to either illness or drunkenness, Sibley did not put his men in motion as ordered.
Meanwhile, the Federals under Emory and Weitzel built earthworks within 400 yards of Fort Bisland, putting Taylor between them and Grover to the north. The Federals both north and south advanced at daybreak on April 12. Taylor’s Confederates held firm, as the “graveyard sound of the many bullets” whizzed overhead. Banks rode to the front, “sitting on his horse, amid the flying missiles in the air, as cool and as calm as if he were presiding over the Legislature.”
Taylor employed the captured gunboat Diana until a Federal shell disabled her engine. Eventually the Federal guns pushed the Confederates into their earthworks. Fighting ended at nightfall, with Taylor reporting that his men “stopped every advance upon the center of the line and thwarted all attempts to break it.” Banks had advanced tentatively because he was still uncertain whether Grover was fully in position to the north.
The next day, Banks advanced once more, at a pace that was “steady and continuous, yet not rapid.” Taylor deployed skirmishers who fell back gradually until the Confederates were back in their strong earthworks. Fighting again ended at nightfall, with Banks still unsure of Grover’s whereabouts. Taylor defiantly reported, “The force at Bisland was in fine spirits.”
As Banks prepared to send Emory and Weitzel forward again on the 14th, a signal shot from the north announced that Grover’s Federals were now ready for action. Banks therefore held Emory and Weitzel in place and waited for Grover to initiate the attack. But by the time Grover had all his men up and prepared to move, Taylor had withdrawn his Confederates from Fort Bisland. Despite losing the fort, Taylor asserted that this engagement raised morale in the Teche district, and “from this time forward, I had the sympathy and support of the people, and my troops were full of confidence.”
As Emory and Weitzel cautiously entered the abandoned fort, Grover pursued Taylor. The Confederates stopped and confronted Grover at a curve in the Teche called Irish Bend, also known as Nerson’s Woods, near Franklin, Louisiana. After an artillery exchange, the Confederates knocked the Federals back as the crippled Diana came up from Franklin.
Taylor took advantage of Grover’s indecisiveness by disengaging and continuing his withdrawal toward the Red River. He burned all the bridges behind him and scuttled the Diana to prevent her capture. Grover did not pursue. Taylor’s force remained relatively intact to fight another day, though he lost about a third of his men to desertion during the retreat. Taylor later charged Sibley with disobedience and conduct unbecoming an officer for failing to attack as ordered.
That same day, the U.S.S. Queen of the West, which had been captured by Confederates and was now employed a Confederate steam ram, encountered a squadron consisting of the U.S.S. Arizona, Calhoun, and Estrella on the Atchafalaya River. As the Federal vessels closed within three miles, the Calhoun sank the Queen with the first shot from her 30-pound Parrott rifle.
Federals captured the town of Franklin on the 15th, and five days later, they took Opelousas and Washington. Opelousas had been the site of the Louisiana state government ever since Admiral Farragut’s ships seized Baton Rouge last year. Banks’s Federals could now link the Red River to New Orleans. During this offshoot of the Port Hudson campaign, they seized 5,000 cotton bales, several hogshead of sugar, vast amounts of salt and lumber, and some 20,000 heads of cattle, horses, and mules.
The combined Federal army-navy forces now had complete control over the Atchafalaya River. But Banks could go no farther than Opelousas because he had gone past his line of supply, which was still in danger of being destroyed by Confederate raiders. Banks had also been unable to destroy Taylor’s Army of West Louisiana, as he put it: “We had the rebels in a bag, and General Grover held the strings, and the whole rebel army was gobbled up; but the damn string was rotten, and they slipped through.”
Meanwhile, Taylor’s Confederates fell back toward Alexandria. Lieutenant-General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, notified Taylor that Banks’s advance now endangered Fort DeRussy, a valuable post some 20 miles below Alexandria. Taylor responded by transferring supplies from DeRussy to safer locales up the Red River.
Around this time, Banks received a message from Grant regretting that he could offer Banks no reinforcements because he did not have enough transports. Grant, who was in the process of executing his daring gamble against Vicksburg, had been prodded by Washington to reinforce Banks. In his message, Grant asked Banks to furnish the transports if he wanted the men.
Banks replied that because he expected Grant’s reinforcements, “we pushed with vigor the expedition upon which we were then engaged.” He then informed Grant of his latest expedition: “Our success has been complete. We have utterly destroyed the army and navy of this part of the Confederacy, and made it impossible for the enemy to reorganize his forces for some months to come.”
Banks claimed that he “completely dispersed” the Confederate forces, having “captured 2,000 prisoners, 1,000 stand of arms, ammunition and ordnance stores, etc., 20 heavy guns, demolished his foundries at Franklin and New Iberia, and the salt-works below Iberia.”
Regarding Grant’s request for transports, Banks wrote, “It is a grief on my part that I cannot aid you in this respect. Our transportation is lamentably deficient. I had but one steamer with which to pass two divisions of my corps over Berwick Bay in this campaign.” Banks believed that controlling the Atchafalaya River was vital to capturing Port Hudson, and since the supply line for his army was tentative at best, “by the Atchafalaya all difficulties of this kind are obviated.”
Both Banks and Grant continued operating independently of each other, despite urgings from their superiors to unite.
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