Category Archives: Military

Red River: Federals Detour Toward Mansfield

April 7, 1864 – Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federal Army of the Gulf veered away from the Red River, moving inadvertently toward Confederate forces led by Major General Richard Taylor.

By the 5th, Banks’s Federals had joined Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith’s troops and Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s naval flotilla at Grand Ecore. They were about to continue up the Red River to the vital cotton-producing city of Shreveport, which was also headquarters for the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department. Taylor’s Confederates opposed Banks near Mansfield, northwest of Grand Ecore near the Texas border.

Banks issued orders to Major General William B. Franklin, commanding XIX Corps and two divisions of XIII Corps, “to force him (Taylor) to give battle, if possible, before he can concentrate his forces behind the fortifications of Shreveport or effect a retreat westerly into Texas.” Franklin was to move “in such order as to be able to throw as much as possible of your force into battle at any time on the march.” A.J. Smith, commanding three divisions of XVI and XVII corps, would follow Franklin. All troops were to carry 200 rounds of ammunition.

Franklin’s men left Grand Ecore on the 6th. Rather than march along the Red River where they had gunboat support, Banks directed them to take an inland route that would supposedly get them to Shreveport quicker. However, the road was so narrow that only one wagon could pass at a time, causing the Federal column to spread out over 20 miles. The road meandered through bayous and brush, taking the slow-moving Federals west toward Mansfield, away from the main water supply. Banks did not know that Taylor was up ahead.

Gen Richard Taylor | Image Credit:

As the Federals started moving, General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, met with Taylor at Mansfield. Taylor suggested preëmptively attacking Banks, but Smith preferred that he stay on the defensive. Taylor also wanted to combine his command with Major General Sterling Price’s in Arkansas, but Smith wanted to keep them separated so Taylor could focus on Banks and Price could focus on Major General Frederick Steele, whose Federals were moving toward Shreveport to link with Banks.

Smith suggested that Taylor fall back into Texas, but Taylor strongly opposed this idea because it would leave Louisiana, his home state, entirely under Federal control. Finally, Smith agreed that Taylor should give battle only if Banks left the safety of the Red River and marched inland. Smith only agreed to this because he believed Banks would never “advance his infantry across the barren country stretching between Natchitoches and Mansfield.” But that was exactly what Banks was doing.

The conference ended without Smith forbidding Taylor from taking the offensive. Taylor therefore decided to attack Banks. The recent arrival of Brigadier General Thomas Green’s division from Texas and Brigadier General Thomas J. Churchill’s division from Arkansas would give Taylor 13,000 men to face Banks’s 27,000. Banks continued moving along the narrow road, confident that Taylor would retreat to either Arkansas or Texas.

Federal cavalry under Brigadier General Albert Lee advanced as far as three miles beyond Pleasant Hill on the 7th, where they were met by Green’s Confederates. The Federals drove them off, but Lee had not expected such resistance so soon. He called for reinforcements, and Banks sent up an infantry brigade.

Meanwhile, Porter continued having trouble getting his gunboats up the falling Red River. He left his heavier vessels behind as he led the lighter boats toward Shreveport, where he hoped to meet up with Banks’s army. Neither Porter nor Banks anticipated what Taylor had in store for them.


References; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20613; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 390; 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 667-77, 773-94, 822-61; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 414-15; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 54-56; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 481


Confederates Prepare in Northern Virginia

April 5, 1864 – General Robert E. Lee issued orders preparing his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to meet the Federal army as soon as it crossed the Rapidan River to attack.

Gen Robert E. Lee | Image Credit:

Lee’s forces had been camped near Orange Court House on the south side of the Rapidan since late last year. This month, they began preparing for active operations against the new Federal general-in-chief, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. Lee was also watching a Federal buildup in Maryland under Major General Ambrose E. Burnside. Confederate scouts confirmed that the Federals were closing their sutler shops and sending their wives to the rear, which indicated that mobilization was imminent. Lee informed President Jefferson Davis:

“The movements and reports of the enemy may be intended to mislead us, and should therefore be carefully observed. But all the information that reaches me goes to strengthen the belief that Genl Grant is preparing to move against Richmond.”

Lieutenant General James Longstreet, commanding the First Corps in Lee’s army, had been detached since last September and was currently operating around Bristol in eastern Tennessee. Longstreet received orders on the 7th to move his Confederates to Charlottesville, Virginia, where he could reinforce Lee if needed.

The next day, Lee informed Davis that two reliable sources stated “the general impression was that the great battle would take place on the Rapidan, and that the Federal army would advance as soon as the weather is settled.” As the Confederates prepared to take the Federals on, Lee continued his struggle to get them much-needed supplies. He wrote Davis:

“There is nothing to be had in this section for man or animals. My anxiety on the subject of provisions for the army is so great that I cannot refrain from expressing it to Your Excellency. I cannot see how we can operate with our present supplies. Any derangement in their arrival or disaster to the railroad would render it impossible for me to keep the army together, and might force a retreat into North Carolina.”

Lee wrote Davis again on the 15th:

“If Richmond could be held secure against the attack from the east, I would propose that I draw Longstreet to me and move right against the enemy on the Rappahannock. Should God give us a crowning victory there, all their plans would be dissipated, and their troops now collecting on the waters of the Chesapeake would be recalled to the defense of Washington. But to make this move I must have provisions and forage. I am not yet able to call to me the cavalry or artillery. If I am obliged to retire from this line, either by a flank movement of the enemy or the want of supplies, great injury will befall us.”

The lack of adequate supplies compelled Lee to adopt a defensive posture. He now could only hope to hold the Federals in check long enough for the northern public to grow tired of the war and replace Abraham Lincoln in the upcoming presidential election with a candidate who would negotiate a peace.

By mid-April, Lee had determined that three Federal forces would be moving toward Richmond:

  • Major General Franz Sigel’s army from the Shenandoah Valley
  • The Army of the Potomac from north of the Rapidan
  • Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s army from the Virginia Peninsula between the York and James rivers

The Confederates began mobilizing on the 18th and sending excess baggage to the rear. However, the Federal activity seemed to slow down. After a week of observation, Lee wrote Davis, “The advance of the Army of the Potomac seems to be delayed for some reason. It appears to be prepared for movement, but is probably waiting for its cooperative columns.” Lee invited Davis to review the army, “if the enemy remains quiet and the weather favorable.” Davis declined, citing too much work to do.

Despite the supply shortages, Lee as always began exploring ways to seize the initiative. His force was just half the size of Grant’s, but it equaled the number Lee had at Chancellorsville last year. Lee discussed his options with Longstreet, who later wrote, “I took the earliest opportunity to suggest that the preliminaries of the campaign should be carefully confined to strategic maneuver until we could show better generalship.” This would compel the Federals to “lose confidence in the superiority of their leader’s skill and prowess.”

Longstreet reasoned that if Lee attacked first, such “immediate aggression from us against his greater numbers must make our labors heavy and more or less doubtful.” To Longstreet, the “power of battle is in generalship more than in the number of soldiers, which, properly illustrated, would make the weaker numbers of the contention the stronger force.” Thus, Lee would remain on the defensive, waiting for Grant to make the first move.

On the last day of April, Lee forwarded intelligence to Davis: “I send you the Philadelphia Inquirer of the 26th, from which you will learn that all Burnside’s available forces are being advanced to the front.” A spy named Thomas Conrad confirmed Lee’s suspicion that Burnside would be moving up from Centreville to reinforce the Army of the Potomac. Lee wrote:

“Our scouts report that the engineer troops, pontoon trains, and all the cavalry of Meade’s army have been advanced south of the Rappahannock… Everything indicates a concentrated attack on this front, which renders me the more anxious to get back the troops belonging to this army, & causes me to suggest if possible, that others be moved from points at the south, where they can be spared, to Richmond.”

But the Confederate high command had few troops to spare. Lee’s army could expect no help as it was about to face the 122,000-man Army of the Potomac.


References; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 390; 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 2512-22, 2551-620; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 415; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6720, 6731-43; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 43-45; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 481-82, 484-85; Time-Life Editors, Spies, Scouts and Raiders: Irregular Operations (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 52-53, 58

Arkansas: The Elkins’ Ferry Engagement

April 4, 1864 – Major General Frederick Steele’s Federal Army of Arkansas encountered resistance while trying to cross the Little Missouri River en route to their rendezvous point at Shreveport, Louisiana.

Maj Gen Frederick Steele | Image Credit:

Steele had left Little Rock in March to link with Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Red River expeditionary force. Steele had resisted joining with Banks due to a large Confederate cavalry presence and a lack of adequate forage in southern Arkansas. But he complied with orders nonetheless, advancing to Arkadelphia unopposed.

Steele expected to link with Brigadier General John M. Thayer’s cavalry force heading east from Fort Smith. But when there was no sign of Taylor after three days, Steele’s Federals resumed their southwestern movement toward Washington. The supply shortage began taking its toll, just as Steele had feared, and his men and animals went on half-rations. From Washington, Steele hoped to move east to Camden to collect more supplies via the Ouachita River.

Part of Steele’s mission was to keep the Confederates in Arkansas from moving south to oppose Banks. Steele seemed to succeed when Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke brought his Confederates out of winter quarters at Camden to confront the Federals. Marmaduke had been ordered by Major General Sterling Price, commanding the Confederate District of Arkansas, to prevent the Federals from crossing the Little Missouri River on their way to Washington.

General John S. Marmaduke | Image Credit:

Marmaduke moved out with three cavalry brigades under Brigadier Generals Jo Shelby and William L. Cabell, and Colonel Colton Greene. Marmaduke planned a three-pronged assault on Steele’s front, flank, and rear. On the 2nd, Shelby’s Confederates attacked the Federal rear guard but were repulsed.

While Marmaduke’s other two brigades tried getting into position, Steele fortified his flank by securing Elkins’ Ferry on the Little Missouri. The bulk of Steele’s army advanced via Elkins’, and a detachment under Colonel Adolph Engelmann moved down the road to Washington before halting for the night at Okolona.

The next morning, a Federal brigade moved north from Okolona toward Spoonville to try finding Thayer’s lost cavalry. The Federals ran into Confederate horsemen, and fierce skirmishing ensued. Colonel John Garrett of the 40th Iowa reported:

“At 9 a.m., as the brigade was about ready to start back to Spoonville, a sharp fight was opened on our picket-line. My regiment was ordered into line by direction of Colonel Engelmann, commanding brigade… Advancing a short distance they met the enemy in the brush and behind logs, and by a few well-directed shots drove them back, following cautiously and firing as opportunity offered.”

Colonel Conrad Krez of the 27th Wisconsin wrote:

“We cleared the rise of the ground, which was covered with an almost impenetrable thicket of hawthorn. The enemy fell back to the other side of a clearing on high ground, and the ravine dividing that clearing from another hill running parallel with the road, where they maintained a heavy fire immediately in front of the three companies deployed by me, and at that time opened with artillery and threw grape and canister to the right of Company G… a heavy thunder-storm broke out and interrupted further operations.”

The fight ended with the Confederates falling back in the rain and the Federals holding their ground. Other skirmishing occurred along the Little Missouri, as Marmaduke traveled with Cabell in an effort to get between Steele’s main force and Washington.

Marmaduke’s Confederates tried stopping the Federals from crossing the Little Missouri at Elkins’ Ferry on the 4th. Lieutenant Colonel Francis Drake was assigned to lead several companies from the 36th Iowa and the 43rd Indiana in guarding the road from the ferry crossing to the Federal camp. Drake reported:

“Soon after daylight, the enemy engaged the cavalry pickets, and almost simultaneously made a determined effort to turn my left flank. The engagement was now becoming very warm, and my men were falling wounded on my right and left, but by a very determined effort we finally succeeded in driving back the rebel column into the woods in front of the orchard.”

Drake’s six companies of 300 men were heavily outnumbered by about 2,000 Confederates closing in on him. The rest of the 36th Iowa came forward, and the Federals made a brave stand that finally drove the Confederates off, despite still being outnumbered. More Federal reinforcements arrived after the Confederates had fallen back. Colonel Charles Kittredge of the 36th Iowa reported, “Drake especially deserves honorable mention for the gallant manner in which he performed his duties.”

This engagement enabled the rest of Steele’s forces to cross the Little Missouri. The Federals sustained about 30 casualties, while the Confederates lost 68 (18 killed and 50 wounded). When Steele received news of the fighting, he opted to hold his positions while continuing to wait for Thayer.

General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, expressed dismay that Steele had been allowed to cross the Little Missouri. Steele’s Federals were now more than halfway to their goal of reaching Shreveport. Smith had originally planned to defeat Banks and then turn to defeat Steele, but this compelled him to focus on Steele first.

The Confederates fell back to defensive works between Washington and Elkins’ Ferry, on the western fringe of Prairie d’Ane.


References; Davis, William C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 106-07; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 389, 391; 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 773-83, 1367-77; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 414, 416; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 63-64; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 480

Red River: Federals Advance from Natchitoches

April 2, 1864 – Federal forces at Natchitoches, Louisiana, looked to continue further up the Red River on the way to their ultimate goal of Shreveport and eastern Texas beyond.

Major General Nathaniel P. Banks | Image Credit:

As April began, Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Army of the Gulf, supported by 10,000 troops under Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith and Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s massive naval fleet on the Red River, held Natchitoches. They were about halfway between Alexandria and the vital cotton-producing city of Shreveport. A correspondent from the New York Tribune noted something strange about this campaign thus far:

“It is a remarkable fact that this Red River expedition is not followed by that anxious interest and solicitude which has heretofore attended similar army movements. The success of our troops is looked upon as a matter of course, and the cotton speculators are the only people I can find who are nicely weighing probabilities and chances in connection with the expedition.”

Banks halted the Federal advance while he supervised an election in Alexandria. Federals decorated the town with flags and bunting to try instilling a patriotic spirit. Residents wanting to vote were required to pledge loyalty to the U.S.; only 300 did. Predictably, they elected fellow Unionists to represent them in the upcoming convention to draft a new Louisiana constitution.

Banks also took the time to finally respond to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s letter from March 15. Grant ordered Banks to return A.J. Smith’s troops to Major General William T. Sherman’s army no later than April 15 so Sherman could launch his spring offensive. Banks was to send the troops back whether he captured Shreveport by then or not. Banks responded by predicting “an immediate and successful issue” of this operation. He continued:

“Our troops now occupy Natchitoches, and we hope to be in Shreveport by the 10th of April. I do not fear concentration of the enemy at that point. My fear is that they may not be willing to meet us there; if not, and my forces are not weakened to too great an extent, I shall pursue the enemy into the interior of Texas, for my sole purpose of destroying or dispersing his forces, if in my power, keeping in view the necessity of the co-operation of some of my troops east of the Mississippi, and losing no time in the campaign in which I am engaged.”

While this seemed to imply that the campaign would extend beyond the deadline that Grant imposed, Banks assured Grant that “General Smith’s command will return to Vicksburg on the 15th or 17th of this month.” However, Banks noted that the Red River was “very low, which has delayed our operations… the gunboats were not able to cross the rapids at Alexandria until day before yesterday.”

Actually, Porter was still working to get all his vessels over Alexandria Falls, and the fleet began arriving at Grand Ecore, about 50 miles upriver from Alexandria. This was the staging area for the next leg of the expedition. By the end of the 2nd, Porter’s entire fleet had finally passed the treacherous falls.

The vessels began concentrating at Grand Ecore the next day, with A.J. Smith’s Federals debarking from their transports and meeting slight Confederate resistance. Banks staged a review of his army at Natchitoches on the 4th, and then confidently wrote his wife, “The enemy retreats before us, and will not fight a battle this side of Shreveport if then.”

Gen Richard Taylor | Image Credit:

As Banks moved to link with A.J. Smith at Grand Ecore, Confederates under Major General Richard Taylor fell back to Mansfield, about 40 miles west, near the Texas border. General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department over Taylor, vacillated over whether he should make a stand at Shreveport, attack Major General Frederick Steele’s Federals moving south from Little Rock, Arkansas, or fall back into Texas.

Taylor wanted to attack Banks as soon as the two brigades that E.K. Smith pulled from Major General Sterling Price’s army in Arkansas arrived to reinforce him. However, Smith kept the troops that Price had sent at Shreveport rather than sending them to Taylor at Mansfield. Smith was still pondering what to do.

On the 3rd, Smith permitted the Confederates at Shreveport, under Brigadier General Thomas J. Churchill, to move to Keachi, between Mansfield and Shreveport. Smith’s refusal to fully reinforce Taylor enraged him. Taylor wrote, “Like the man who had admitted the robber into his bed-chamber instead of resisting him at the door, our defense will be embarrassed by the cries of women and children.”

Having helped defeat Banks in the Shenandoah Valley in 1862, Taylor advised Smith that the Confederates needed–

“Action, prompt, vigorous action. While we are deliberating the enemy is marching. King James lost three kingdoms for a mass. We may lose three states without a battle. Banks is cold, timid, easily foiled. He depends principally on the river for transportation. Steele is bold, ardent, vigorous. Independent of rivers, his transportation has doubtless been made ample for his purposes. If he has anything like the force represented he will sweep Price from his path. He is the most dangerous and should be met and overthrown at once.”

Smith’s reply indicated that he was still unsure whether Banks or Steele was the greater threat and, noting that the two armies were still over 200 miles apart, he wrote that the distance “is far too great for us to concentrate on either column.” Smith continued:

“Our position is a good one. We occupy the interior line, and a concentration is being forced which otherwise could never have happened. While we retain our little army undefeated we have hopes. When we fight, it must be for victory. Defeat not only loses the department, but releases the armies employed against us here for operation beyond the Mississippi.”

Smith explained that he wanted to hold both Louisiana and Arkansas, but to do so, he needed to avoid the destruction of either Taylor’s or Price’s army. Smith informed Taylor that he would leave his Shreveport headquarters and consult with him in person at Mansfield on the 6th.


References; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20613; 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. 390; 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 667-87, 697-707, 773-83, 812-32; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 414; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 54-55; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 480-81

Grant Suspends Prisoner Exchange

April 1, 1864 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant issued “most emphatic” orders to take no action on agreeing to exchange prisoners of war without further notification. This initiated a grim new war policy.

On the last day of March, Robert Ould, Confederate commissioner of prisoner exchange, met with Major General Benjamin F. Butler, the Federal agent for prisoner exchange, at Fort Monroe, Virginia, to discuss ways to solve the problems with the exchange system.

A makeshift prisoner exchange cartel had been agreed upon in 1862, but it had virtually dissolved by the middle of 1863. The Federal victories at Vicksburg, Port Hudson, and other locations resulted in the capture of tens of thousands of Confederates, and instead of shipping them to northern prison camps, they were paroled on the promise that they would not take up arms against the U.S. again until properly exchanged for Federal prisoners.

Federal General U.S. Grant | Image Credit:

Grant was enraged when he discovered that many Confederates captured during the Battle of Chattanooga had violated their pledge and returned to the army without being exchanged. An effort was made to renew the cartel, but the Confederates initially refused to deal with Butler because the Confederate government had branded him a war criminal for his dictatorial rule over New Orleans in 1862.

The Confederates also refused to recognize black Federal soldiers as legitimate prisoners of war and would not exchange them. According to the Confederate War Bureau, “The enlistment of our slaves is a barbarity. No people… could tolerate… the use of savages (against them) … We cannot on any principle allow that our property can acquire adverse rights by virtue of a theft of it.”

In late 1863, the Confederates expressed willingness to negotiate the exchange of black prisoners who had been free before enlisting, but the Federal government refused to distinguish between free blacks and slaves in the military. Ould declared that the Confederates would “die in the last ditch” before “giving up the right to send slaves back to slavery as property recaptured.” Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton called this “a shameful dishonor… when (the Confederates) agree to exchange all alike there will be no difficulty.”

Four months later, Ould and Butler finally arranged to sit down together and try working out their differences. The men agreed that Butler would work with his superiors to address all the points of contention and then meet with Ould again.

However, when Butler conferred with Grant the next day, Butler said that “most emphatic verbal directions were received from the Lieutenant-General not to take any step by which another able-bodied man should be exchanged until further orders from him.”

On the 17th, Grant outlined a major policy change on the issue in a letter to Butler: “Until there is released to us an equal number of officers and men as were captured and paroled at Vicksburg and Port Hudson, not another Confederate prisoner of war will be paroled or exchanged.” Confederate officials had claimed that the troops had returned to the army prematurely due to a clerical error. Grant demanded proof, and he added another stipulation:

“No distinction whatever will be made in the exchange between white and colored prisoners, the only question being, were they, at the time of their capture, in the military service of the United States. If they were, the same terms as to treatment while prisoners and conditions of release and exchange must be exacted and had, in the case of colored soldiers as in the case of white soldiers.”

Grant further declared, “Non-acquiescence by the Confederate authorities in both or either of these propositions will be regarded as a refusal on their part to agree to the further exchange of prisoners, and will be so treated by us.” Grant elaborated on this policy in a second message to Butler the next day:

“It is hard on our men held in Southern prisons not to exchange them, but it is humanity to those left in the ranks to fight our battles. Every man we hold, when released on parole or otherwise, becomes an active soldier against us at once either directly or indirectly. If we commence a system of exchange which liberates all prisoners taken, we will have to fight on until the whole South is exterminated. If we hold those caught they amount to no more than dead men. At this particular time to release all rebel prisoners North would insure (William T.) Sherman’s defeat and would compromise our safety here.”

This new policy deprived the Confederacy of desperately needed manpower by keeping captured soldiers in prison camps. It also provided an incentive for soldiers to avoid being captured. However, the policy condemned thousands of Federal soldiers to death because the Confederacy lacked the necessities to care for its own citizens, let alone prisoners of war. The Federal blockade and growing occupation of southern regions added to the Confederate shortages and indirectly harmed the prisoners even more.

General Robert E. Lee tried to personally appeal to Grant to reconsider, but Grant refused. Lee reported to President Jefferson Davis, “We have done everything in our power to mitigate the suffering of prisoners and there is no further responsibility on our part.”

This month, it was reported that Federals had captured 146,634 Confederate troops since the war began. In response to alleged mistreatment of Federal prisoners, the Federal government decreased the ration allotment to Confederate captives. On the 30th, Grant directed Butler “to receive all the sick and wounded the Confederate authorities may send you, but send no more in exchange.”

In the South, Andersonville prison camp in southwestern Georgia soon became notorious for its horrid living conditions. It held nearly 30,000 prisoners by this month, or nearly three times its capacity. Prison Commandant Henry Wirz received orders to set a “dead line” within 15 feet of the prison walls. Any prisoner crossing this line would be shot by guards.

Photographs of emaciated Federal troops recently released from Confederate prisons appeared in northern illustrated newspapers and sparked outrage. An article in the New York Times declared that this treatment should be expected from slaveholders “born to tyranny and reared to cruelty.” Both the Committee on the Conduct of the War and the U.S. Sanitary Commission published reports on the condition of Confederate prison camps based on accounts from released or escaped prisoners.

Stanton declared, “The enormity of the crime committed by the rebels cannot but fill with horror the civilized world… There appears to have been a deliberate system of savage and barbarous treatment.” However, Confederate prisoners languished in similar living conditions, even though the Federal government had the resources to provide better care.


References; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21524, 21597; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 393; 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 2766-86; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 420, 422; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 38; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 486; 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. 792, 797; Robbins, Peggy, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 604; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q264

The Army of Northern Virginia Awaits Action

March 26, 1864 – Confederate scouts informed General Robert E. Lee that the officers’ wives in the Federal Army of the Potomac were leaving camp, indicating that the Federals were about to mobilize for a new offensive.

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit:

Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia remained camped south of the Rapidan River, waiting for the battle season to begin again. Upon learning that Ulysses S. Grant had become general-in-chief of all Federal armies, Lee believed that Grant would stay in the Western Theater, where he was most familiar. He told Lieutenant General James Longstreet in eastern Tennessee that he suspected “the enemy’s great effort will be in the west, and we must concentrate our strength there to meet them.”

Lee told President Jefferson Davis that he was “not disposed to believe from what I now know, that the first important effort will be directed against Richmond.” With the Army of the Potomac having gained hardly any ground in three years, Lee reasoned that Grant would most likely just use it as a diversion while he focused on destroying the western Confederate armies.

When Lee received a copy of Grant’s General Order No. 1 declaring that his headquarters would be with the Army of the Potomac, Lee still maintained that Grant’s main focus would be on the west. Lee wrote Davis, “There was no apparent occasion for the publication at such a time and place of his intention to take up his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac, and the announcement appears to me to be made with some hidden purpose.” Lee continued:

“There is to my mind an appearance of design about the order intended to mislead us as to the enemy’s intention, and if possible, induce corresponding preparation on our part. I cannot learn that the army of Gen. (George G.) Meade has been reinforced by any organized troops, nor can I learn of any coming east over the B&O Railroad which I have ordered to be watched closely.”

In fact, Brigadier General John D. Imboden, commanding Confederate cavalry in the Shenandoah Valley, had informed Lee that the “enemy was moving troops westwards over that road all last week.” Although this did not prove that the Federals were shifting troops from the Army of the Potomac to the west, it indicated some kind of buildup away from northern Virginia.

Lee further reasoned that the west would be where the action began because “the roads will probably be more favorable for active operations at an early day in the south (i.e., northern Georgia) than in Va. where it will be uncertain for more than a month.”

Lee explained, “I am inclined to believe that the first efforts of the enemy will be directed against Gen (Joseph E.) Johnston (commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee) or Gen Longstreet, most probably the former. If it succeeds, Richmond will no doubt be attacked.” But Lee “cannot do more than weigh probabilities, they are useful in stimulating and directing a vigilant observation of the enemy, and suggesting such a policy on our part as may determine his.” The best course of action would be to–

“… make the best preparations in our power to meet an advance in any quarter, but be careful not to suffer ourselves to be misled by feigned movements into strengthening one point at the expense of others. We should hold ourselves in constant readiness to concentrate as rapidly as possible wherever it may be necessary, but do nothing without reasonably certain information except prepare.”

Lee hoped that Johnston in northern Georgia and Longstreet in eastern Tennessee might fend off any Federal offensive in the west, writing:

“Energy and activity on our part, with a constant readiness to seize any opportunity to strike a blow, will embarrass, if not entirely thwart the enemy in concentrating his different armies, and compel him to conform his movements to ours. In the meantime, to guard against any contingency, everything not immediately required should be sent away from Richmond, and store of food and other supplies collected in suitable and safe places for the use of the troops that it may become necessary to assemble for its defense.”

All this changed when Lee received word that the officers’ wives in the Army of the Potomac had begun leaving the camps. As more news about Federal mobilization trickled in, Lee finally realized that the main thrust of the upcoming Federal offensive would be against his Army of Northern Virginia. Lee reported to Davis on the 28th:

“General Grant has returned from the West. He is at present with the Army of the Potomac, which is being reorganized and recruited. From the reports of our scouts the impression prevails in that army that he will operate it in the coming campaign. Every train brings it recruits, and it is stated that every available regiment at the North is added to it.”

Lee also correctly reported that Major General Ambrose E. Burnside had resumed command of his old IX Corps, which was assembling in Maryland, and that Major General Franz Sigel was preparing his Federal army for a thrust into the Shenandoah Valley. Lee wrote that Burnside was “organizing a large army at Annapolis, and it seems probable that additional troops are being sent to the valley.”

Lee expressed concern that the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, which had been wrecked numerous times by Confederate cavalry, was now operational from Harpers Ferry to Winchester, and it was “closely guarded along its whole extent.” This indicated “secrecy and preparation.”

Lee stated that Grant’s “plans are not sufficiently developed to discover them, but I think we can assume that if General Grant is to direct operations on this frontier he will concentrate a large force on one or more lines, and prudence dictates that we should make such preparations as are in our power.”

To do this, Lee suggested that either Johnston or Longstreet launch an offensive: “If an aggressive movement can be made in the West, it will disconcert their plans and oblige them to conform to ours.” If that could not be done, “Longstreet should be held in readiness to be thrown rapidly in the valley, if necessary, to counteract any movement in that quarter, in accomplishing which I could unite with him, or he unite with me, should circumstances require it, on the Rapidan.”

Never before had the Army of Northern Virginia been in such danger. As the Federals massed on all fronts, Lee had just 40,000 effectives south of the Rapidan River. A.R. Lawton, the army quartermaster general, reported that the battered railroads were delivering more supplies than ever, even though they were on a “forced march.” Lawton worked to ensure that supplies continued arriving for the troops by rail because combat would soon resume.


References; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6720; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 45

Red River: Banks Faces Problems

March 25, 1864 – Major General Nathaniel P. Banks assembled the largest Federal force west of the Mississippi River, but he soon ran into trouble.

Federal General Nathaniel Banks | Image Credit:

Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federal Army of the Gulf (three divisions of XIX Corps and two divisions of XIII Corps) joined forces with Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith’s 10,000 Federals from the Army of the Tennessee and Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s 60-vessel naval squadron at Alexandria. The force consisted of 27,000 men with 90 army guns and 210 naval guns. The Confederates could not hope to match its power.

Banks, commanding the army portion of the expedition, was now ready to march north and capture Shreveport, the key cotton-producing center in the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department. However, besides the delays that had already put the campaign fearfully behind schedule, Banks noticed other problems that would eventually need addressing.

First, Federal sailors were grabbing all the cotton they could find and sending it north for profit. Porter received five percent on all sales, and half the rest was distributed among the sailors. The sailors did not discriminate between Confederate-owned, Unionist-owned, or even free black-owned cotton.

Cotton bales stamped “C.S.A.” (from the Confederate army) were re-stamped “U.S.N.” Civilian bales with no branding were illicitly stamped “C.S.A.” and then “U.S.N.” Federal army troops, who were not allowed to join in the scheme, complained that “C.S.A.U.S.N.” stood for “Cotton Stealing Associate of the United States Navy.”

Second, the water levels on the Red River were falling, which made it potentially dangerous for Porter’s massive flotilla to proceed upstream. If the levels continued falling, there was a chance that the ships could be trapped in the shallows and destroyed by Confederates on shore. Banks and Porter decided to risk heading upriver anyway.

Third, Banks was required by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant to return A.J. Smith’s troops to the Army of the Tennessee by April 15, just 20 days away, whether Shreveport was captured by then or not. Not only did Banks have to hurry if he wanted to take Shreveport, but he would then be required to immediately turn east and advance on Mobile, Alabama.

Despite these issues, the Red River campaign entered a new phase when the Federals began moving northward out of Alexandria. Colonel Thomas Lucas’s cavalry held Henderson’s Hill, 20 miles north of town, and A.J. Smith’s troops occupied a nearby plantation. Banks’s next targets were Grand Ecore and Natchitoches, about halfway between Alexandria and Shreveport on the Red.

General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, was to direct troops from Major General Sterling Price’s army in Arkansas to reinforce Major General Richard Taylor’s force in Louisiana, currently at Grand Ecore. Taylor wrote E.K. Smith, “It will be perfectly practicable at the present time for General Price’s command to be transported by water to Grand Ecore. This would save 60 or 70 miles of marching.”

Taylor reported that because of Unionist “jayhawkers” in the region, “the difficulty of obtaining accurate intelligence is greatly enhanced. The whole country between this and Alexandria swarms with these outlaws, who are allied with the enemy and acting in his interests.”

Having lost his only cavalry unit at Henderson’s Hill, Taylor awaited the arrival of Texas cavalry under Brigadier General Thomas Green, who would be arriving in a few days. Taylor wrote, “I shall assume the offensive as soon as Green joins me.”

On the Red River, Federal sailors continued seizing all the cotton they could get their hands on. Crewmen from the U.S.S. Benton landed at a plantation near Fort DeRussy and seized 13 bales of cotton. The next day, the same crewmen went back and “got 18 bales from the same place, which they baled themselves, using up an old awning for the purpose.”

By the 29th, Porter was having trouble getting his vessels up Alexandria Falls, which consisted of rapids over deadly boulders. Having nobody in his squadron who ever navigated their way through this stretch, Porter later wrote, “We had no pilots of any account, and got along by main strength and nonsense.”

The army transports got through, but some of the gunboats had to be left behind. As the U.S.S. Mound City awaited a tug to pull her through the falls, “At 8:45 tug came with orders from admiral not to attempt the rapids until the wind had subsided.” When the wind died down, the Mound City proceeded, but she “Struck a shoal at 6:15 p.m. and grounded.”

One of the heaviest vessels in the squadron, the U.S.S. Eastport, was brought over the falls, according to Porter, “after a great deal of labor and two and a half days’ hard work.” It would take until April 3 to get the rest of the flotilla over the falls, which Banks later cited as the reason for his delays (even though he refused to heed warnings that the river levels were low). Porter further reported:

“It is very slow work getting over these rocks, but as yet we have met with no accidents. One hospital ship (the Woodford), belonging to the Marine Brigade, sunk on the falls by striking the rocks, but all the rest of the transports went over safely. I shall only be able to take up a part of the force I brought with me, and leave the river guarded all the way through.”

Porter soon received word that Confederates were trying to obstruct the naval advance at Loggy Bayou. He later wrote, “If one (vessel) got on a bank, another would haul him off, and there was not a vessel there that did not haul the others off three or four times before we got to Loggy Bayou–the name is significant enough without saying any more in regard to it.” Porter also noted that civilians were no help:

“The people all along were kind to us as we went up, and gave us information cheerfully whenever we asked it. Only it was curious that their information led us into all kinds of difficulties. Where they told us the deep water was, we found shoals and snags, and where we were told to go through a cut-off we found it blind. But how could these poor people know? Likely they had never been on a steamboat or on the river in their lives.”

The Eastport made it up the Red all the way to Grand Ecore, which was taken on the 30th. Taylor’s Confederates fell back to Pleasant Hill, about 40 miles northwest of Natchitoches and less than 20 miles from the Texas border. When Taylor learned that E.K. Smith still had not sent any of Price’s men to reinforce him, he sent an angry message:

“Had I conceived for an instant that such astonishing delay would ensue before reinforcements reached me, I would have fought a battle even against the heavy odds. It would have been better to lose the state after a defeat than to surrender it without a fight. The fairest and richest portion of the Confederacy is now a waste. Louisiana may well know her destiny. Her children are exiles; her labor system is destroyed. Expecting every hour to receive the promised reinforcements, I did not feel justified in hazarding a general engagement with my little army. I shall never cease to regret my error.”

Part of Green’s Texas cavalry finally arrived, but it only consisted of 250 troopers. Taylor stationed them on the north bank of the Red to harass the Federal vessels as best they could. Another 350 horsemen arrived the next day, but half were unarmed. Meanwhile, Banks put one of his Federal corps on transports, intending to reunite his forces at Natchitoches by April 2. From there, they would begin the last leg of their expedition toward Shreveport.

In Arkansas, Major General Frederick Steele’s 7,000 Federals continued southward on their mission to link with Banks at Shreveport. They arrived at Arkadelphia on the 29th after various clashes with Confederate cavalry, covering just 70 miles in six days. Steele rested his men while awaiting Brigadier General John M. Thayer’s Federals from Fort Smith. Once Thayer arrived, the Federals were to advance to the Little Missouri River.

Federals under Colonel Powell Clayton moved southward from Mount Elba and attacked a Confederate supply train at Long View on the Sabine River, capturing 35 wagons and 260 men. The next day, Clayton concentrated his Federals at Mount Elba, opening a supply line toward Camden to support Steele’s approach.

E.K. Smith needed Price to keep Steele at bay if he was going to send reinforcements to Taylor. Smith directed Price, “Retard the enemy’s advance. Operate on their communications if practicable. Time is everything with us.”


References; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20613; Davis, William C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 106-07; 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. 388-89; 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 609-19, 648-77, 726-36, 1367-77, 1386-96; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 412-13; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 54-56, 63-64; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 479