Major-General Nathaniel P. Banks, commanding the Federal Army of the Gulf in Louisiana, renewed his effort to invade and conquer eastern Texas. Banks once again assigned this operation to Major-General William B. Franklin, despite Franklin’s embarrassing defeat at Sabine Pass in September.
Franklin assembled two divisions from his Nineteenth Corps, consisting of nearly 20,000 men, at Fort Bisland on the Bayou Teche. Unlike the failed coastal expedition of the previous month, this campaign would involve marching overland up the Teche into central Louisiana before moving west into Texas around Beaumont. Meanwhile, a portion of the Thirteenth Corps would move along the Texas coast to capture the area around the mouth of the Rio Grande, where the Confederacy was being supplied via Mexico.
Franklin’s force began moving out on October 3. Its opposition consisted of just 8,000 Confederates of Major-General Richard Taylor’s Army of Western Louisiana. Taylor quickly learned that the Federals were on the move, but he did not know their objective. He reported on the 6th that “the enemy is advancing in very large force. Whether it is his intention to march to the Red River Valley before going to Texas has not yet been developed.”
Three days later, Franklin’s troops reached Vermillionville (now Lafayette), where an enemy cavalry force under Brigadier-General Tom Green opposed their crossing of the Vermillion River. A New York Herald reporter traveling with Franklin’s men wrote that “for about an hour the firing was very warm” before the Federals finally drove the outnumbered Confederates off.
The Federals reached Bayou Carencro on the 11th, some 70 miles up the Teche from their starting point. Banks, who had temporarily accompanied Franklin’s advance, now returned to his New Orleans headquarters to launch the second prong of his offensive. Banks told Franklin that he “had no special instruction for you beyond what will naturally occur to you, to hold your position in that quarter.”
Green’s Confederates continued to provide sporadic opposition to the Federal advance while Taylor’s main force took up defenses around Evergreen, below Alexandria. Franklin, now on his own with little direction from his superior, once again began showing the excessive caution that had plagued him at the Battles of Fredericksburg and Sabine Pass.
The Federals skirmished with Confederates around Opelousas and Barre’s Landing, and advanced up to Washington, seven miles north of Opelousas, on the 21st. By this time, Franklin was realizing that the roads leading into eastern Texas were not designed to accommodate such a large army. Moreover, the region was largely barren, and once his force got into Texas, Franklin would be forced to contend with not only Taylor’s Confederates in his rear but Major-General John B. Magruder’s army in his front.
Franklin twice wrote Banks that he would “be very glad to get definite instructions,” but as October wound to a close, he got no reply. A frustrated Federal soldier wrote, “It seemed as though the Texas campaign had become very infirm. Creeping along for a little time, with slow and tottering pace, (it) had now nearly reached the end of its existence.”
Franklin may have been reluctant to advance, but it was becoming clear that he could not stay where he was much longer either. Fall rains were swelling the creeks, rivers, and bayous to the point that Federal ships could not get supplies to Franklin’s troops, and Green’s Confederates regularly attacked Federal foragers. An officer wrote, “The rebels hang around us so incessantly that we cannot send out to get anything.”
By the 26th, Franklin had decided to withdraw back to New Iberia. He wrote Banks that he could “get forage more easily (there), and the supply of provisions can be kept up.” The Confederates cautiously pursued Franklin’s troops, as Taylor looked for an opening to attack.
That same day, about 3,500 Federals under Major-General Napoleon J.T. Dana began boarding transports to go down the Texas coast as the second prong of Banks’s offensive. This operation consisted of about 20 vessels, including the gunboats U.S.S. Monongahela, Virginia, and Owasco. An observer noted that the ships were “dotting the surface of the water as far as the eye can reach.”
Banks himself accompanied the Federals on this second prong. He was not yet aware that his first prong was already falling back, thereby making this mission a failure before it even began.
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