Red River: Porter Struggles to Withdraw

April 11, 1864 – The lowering water level on the Red River became a serious concern for Rear Admiral David D. Porter because it threatened to trap his massive naval squadron in hostile territory.

Major General Nathaniel P. Banks had launched the Red River expedition in hopes of capturing the vital cotton-producing center of Shreveport, Louisiana, before driving into eastern Texas. He was accompanied by the largest naval fleet ever assembled west of the Mississippi River, headed by Porter. He was also supposed to have been joined by Major General Frederick Steele’s Army of Arkansas.

But things did not go as planned. Steele was being surrounded by Confederates in southern Arkansas, Porter’s vessels were in danger of being stuck on the rapidly falling Red River, and Banks had suffered an embarrassing defeat at Mansfield. Banks followed this up with an impressive victory at Pleasant Hill, but by then he had lost his nerve and ordered a withdrawal back down the Red.

Rear Adm D.D. Porter | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Meanwhile, Porter’s situation was becoming more critical each day. As his ships chugged through the shallow waters, Porter noticed that the road along the river was in excellent shape for a marching army. But Banks had taken an inland road instead, where he was driven back by the Confederates. Porter wrote to Major General William T. Sherman:

“It struck me very forcibly that this would have been the route for the army, where they could have traveled without all that immense train, the country supporting them as they proceeded along. The roads are good, wide fields on all sides, a river protecting the right flank of the army, and gun-boats in company. An army would have no difficulty in marching to Shreveport in this way.”

By the 10th, Porter’s fleet was stopped at Loggy Bayou and Springfield Landing, about 30 miles from Shreveport, due to falling water and the hulk of the Confederate steamer New Falls City, which had been sunk to block his advance. Porter notified Sherman:

“When I arrived at Springfield Landing I found a sight that made me laugh. It was the smartest thing I ever knew the rebels to do. They had gotten that huge steamer, New Falls City, across Red River, one mile above Loggy Bayou, 15 feet of her on shore on each side, the boat broken down in the middle, and a sand bar making below her. An invitation in large letters to attend a ball in Shreveport was kindly left stuck up by the rebels, which invitation we were never able to accept.”

Soon after, a messenger arrived informing Porter that Banks was retreating, and the naval fleet was “to return without delay” to Grand Ecore. Porter quickly “reversed the order of steaming, and with a heavy heart started downward, anticipating that the rebels, flushed with victory, with our army in full retreat before them, would come in on our flank and cut us to pieces.”

Porter wrote Sherman, “As I anticipated, the rebels were soon aware of our turning back, and were after us like a pack of wolves. They assailed us from every point, but the dispositions that were made always foiled them. We always drove them away with loss.”

According to officers of the U.S.S. Chillicothe, “at 4:30 p.m. the enemy opened fire on the transports Black Hawk and Benefit with musketry, which was immediately replied to by the Cricket, Osage, Gazelle, and the tug Dahlia.” Porter later recalled:

“Of course we fired back, but what harm could that do to people who were in deep rifle-pits, screened by trees or in a canebrake? The affair reminded me very much of the retreat of the French from Moscow, only this wasn’t retreating; we were getting out of the enemy’s country as fast as we could!”

By the night of the 11th, Banks’s entire army had reached Grand Ecore, and any faith the exhausted and demoralized troops may have had in Banks’s leadership was gone.

Porter’s flotilla reached Blair’s Landing on the 12th, but several ships were either stuck in the shallows or still struggling to get through. Confederate snipers on the bluffs overlooking the river fired down on them, while Brigadier General Thomas Green, perhaps drunk, led his dismounted cavalry in a reckless attack from the riverbank.

As the Federals aboard the gunboats trained their cannon to meet the attack, Chief Engineer Thomas Doughty of the U.S.S. Osage used an instrument he had developed, which Lieutenant Commander Thomas O. Selfridge, commanding the Osage, later called “a method of sighting the turret from the outside, by means of what would now be called a periscope…” This first known use of a periscope helped Selfridge direct his fire. Selfridge wrote:

“… On first sounding to general quarters… (I) went inside the turret to direct its fire, but the restricted vision from the peep holes rendered it impossible to see what was going on in the threatened quarter, whenever the turret was trained in the loading position. In this extremity I thought of the periscope, and hastily took up station there, well protected by the turret, yet able to survey the whole scene and to direct an accurate fire.”

The Federal guns, accompanied by soldiers and sailors hiding behind cotton bales and stacks of hay and oats fired into the Confederate attackers, mortally wounding Green. Another 309 Confederates were killed or wounded in the withering fire of muskets, grape, and canister, while the Federals lost 57.

The surviving Confederates fell back. Green, the hero of Valverde, died at Blair’s Plantation. Lieutenant General Richard Taylor, overall Confederate commander in Louisiana, lamented, “His death was a public calamity, and mourned as such by the people of Texas and Louisiana.” Even Banks commended Green, calling him “the ablest officer in their service.”

After repelling the Confederate charge, Porter managed to dislodge his vessels and continue downriver. But extracting his squadron from the Red River completely would prove a monumental challenge.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 65-66; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 391-92; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 323; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 417, 419; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 63, 66-67; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 483-84; 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. 193-94

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Arkansas: The Prairie d’Ane Engagement

April 10, 1864 – Major General Frederick Steele’s Federal Army of Arkansas clashed with Confederates while trying to move south and join forces with the Federals at Shreveport.

Maj Gen Frederick Steele | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Steele’s 8,500 Federals had left Little Rock to support the Red River campaign, but Confederates in Arkansas tried to stop them. After failing to prevent the Federals from crossing the Little Missouri River, Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke’s Confederate cavalry fell back to the rugged wilderness of Prairie d’Ane. The troopers were joined by Major General Sterling Price, commanding the District of Arkansas, and two infantry brigades.

Following the Battle of Pleasant Hill, Price had decided to send no more troops to Louisiana and instead turn his full attention to the Federals in Arkansas. Lieutenant General Richard Taylor, commanding the Confederates in Louisiana, deeply resented this move because he wanted to pursue and destroy Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federal Army of the Gulf and reclaim his home state.

Price reported that the Confederates were “drawn up in line of battle at the west end of the prairie, where some rude and imperfect entrenchments had been thrown up.” Brigadier General Jo Shelby’s brigade patrolled the Confederate front for several days; Shelby wrote that the time “was spent in desultory skirmishing, with now and then an alarm, in which I formed my command in battle line.”

Steele had been waiting for reinforcements from Fort Smith, led by Brigadier General John M. Thayer, and he finally received word that they had been sighted. Steele opted to wait for Thayer and fortify his position before advancing against the Confederates.

Rain washed the Federal defenses away on the 7th, as Steele’s chief engineer wrote, “Corduroying and bridges were afloat, the whole bottom nearly was under water, and the Little Missouri was no longer fordable, having risen three feet.” With no forage in this unforgiving region of Arkansas, Steele’s men and animals went from half to quarter-rations.

The Federals built a pontoon bridge that Thayer used to join Steele on the 9th. However, the arrival of Thayer’s men only added to Steele’s supply shortages and did nothing to relieve him from the constant harassment by nearby Confederate troopers. Steele therefore decided to push through the Confederates in his front to get to Camden, where he could receive supplies via the Ouachita River.

Steele’s men clashed with Shelby’s pickets that night, and Shelby reported, “For three hours more the fight went on, the whole heaven lit up with bursting bombs and the falling flames of muskets.” The Confederates fell back toward Washington, and by the morning of the 10th, the Federals held the road from Washington to Camden.

Steele could not turn east toward Camden without risking being attacked from the Confederates in his rear to the west. Thus, he directed Brigadier General Frederick Salomon’s division to confront the enemy on the western edge of Prairie d’Ane. Salomon reported at 1 p.m., “I commenced to move forward and advanced some four miles or more to the prairie, closing the day with a severe skirmish…”

The Confederates fell back, but as they did they drew the Federals further into the forbidding wilderness of the prairie and away from their potential supply base at Camden. Skirmishing continued for the next several days that cost Steele valuable time, men, and materiel.

The Federals finally disengaged and turned east toward Camden on the 12th. Price’s Confederates advanced into Prairie d’Ane the next day and clashed with the Federal rear guard under Thayer. Steele feinted toward Washington while continuing toward Camden; Price had pulled his troops out of Camden because he believed that Steele would target Washington.

Camden had been a strong Confederate base in Arkansas, and when Price realized that Steele was heading there, he scrambled to get his troops back to the town first. Price dispatched Marmaduke’s cavalry and Brigadier General Thomas Dockery’s infantry brigade to race the Federals to Camden. Steele reported:

“When they found we had turned this way, they tried to beat us here. Marmaduke got in our front and Dockery in our rear, by the middle and north roads, and endeavored to hold us until Price could get into the fortifications by the south road with his infantry and artillery.”

The Federals hurried east, “driving Marmaduke before us from position to position.” Price was receiving reinforcements from the Indian Territory, and three divisions from Taylor in Louisiana were on their way. However, the Federals won the race, with the vanguard reaching Camden on the 14th and the rest of the army getting there the next day.

According to Steele, “There are nine forts on eminences, and they seem to be well located. Strategically and commercially, I regard this as the first town in Arkansas.” Steele acknowledged that he was still expected to continue south and capture Shreveport, but he stated that it was “all important to hold this place.”

Steele became even more hesitant to leave Camden when he learned that Banks had retreated after the Battle of Pleasant Hill. However, Price was gathering his Confederates to either force Steele out or cut off his supply line.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; 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. 391; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 588-90; 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 1109-19, 1416-46; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 416-17, 420; 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. 485

The Battle of Pleasant Hill

April 9, 1864 – Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federals made a stand after the previous day’s defeat as Confederates under Major General Richard Taylor sought to drive them out of western Louisiana.

Banks directed his Army of the Gulf to retreat to Pleasant Hill, about 15 miles east of Mansfield. There they linked with Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith’s veterans from XVI and XVII corps arriving from Grand Ecore. Banks now had 18,000 men, but he feared that his demoralized troops could not withstand another Confederate attack. Moreover, his XIX Corps had retreated past Pleasant Hill and could not be recalled if needed.

Meanwhile, the Confederate victory at Mansfield emboldened Taylor to pursue and destroy Banks’s army. Taylor’s force had been bolstered to about 13,000 men with the arrival of Brigadier General Thomas J. Churchill’s Arkansas division on the night of the 8th. However, the troops were exhausted from fighting and marching, so Taylor gave them a few hours’ rest before resuming the pursuit on the 9th. This gave Banks more time to bolster his defenses.

Banks reported, “The enemy began to reconnoiter the new position we had assumed at 11 o’clock, and as early as 1 or 2 o’clock opened a sharp fire of skirmishers, which was kept up at intervals during the afternoon. About 5 o’clock the enemy abandoned all pretension of maneuvering and made a most desperate attack upon the brigades on the left center.”

After probing the Federal lines and firing on them with the cannon captured at Mansfield, Taylor launched a furious all-out assault. Major General John G. Walker’s Texans and Brigadier General Camille Polignac’s Louisianans struck the Federal right but could not break it. However, Churchill’s forces penetrated the Federal left and center, killing Federal brigade commander Colonel Lewis Benedict.

Battle of Pleasant Hill | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The Federal left wavered until Brigadier General James McMillan’s brigade attacked Churchill’s vulnerable right flank. A.J. Smith saw this and, according to his report:

“I ordered a charge by the whole line, and we drove them back, desperately fighting step by step across the field, through the wood, and into the open field beyond, fully a mile from the battle-field, when they took advantage of the darkness and fell back toward Mansfield thoroughly whipped and demoralized.”

The Confederates fled in confusion much like the Federals had done the day before. The Federals atoned for their sharp defeat at Mansfield by holding Pleasant Hill. Smith reported capturing nearly 1,000 Confederates and called the enemy’s losses “unusually severe.” He also claimed that Banks came up to him after the battle and said, “God bless you, General, you have saved the army.”

Smith deployed two brigades ahead on the road to Mansfield, expecting “the order to follow up our success by a vigorous pursuit.” However, Smith was stunned when he received orders around midnight “to have my command in readiness to move at 2 o’clock in the morning, and at that hour to withdraw them silently from the field and follow the Nineteenth Army Corps back to Grand Ecore.” Smith advised Banks that the army should not retreat after such a strong victory, adding:

“I represented to him that the dead of my command were not buried, and that I had not the means of transporting my wounded; that many of the wounded had not yet been gathered in from the field, and asked of him permission to remain until noon the next day to give me an opportunity to bury my dead and leave the wounded as well provided for as the circumstances would permit.”

Banks denied Smith’s request and wrote in his official report:

“The rout of the enemy was complete. At the close of the engagement the victorious party found itself without rations and without water. To clear the field for the fight, the train had been sent to the rear upon the single line of communications through the woods, and could not be brought to the front during the night. There was neither water for man or beast, except such as the now exhausted well had afforded during the day, for miles around.”

Banks was also unnerved by the fact that Major General Frederick Steele’s Federals, which were supposed to meet Banks’s army at Shreveport, were still in Arkansas. In addition, Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s massive naval squadron was still struggling to get up the falling Red River. But Banks did not consider that Taylor’s Confederates were in just as bad shape as his Federals, or else he could have pushed forward and most likely accomplished his mission of capturing Shreveport.

The Federals sustained 1,369 casualties (150 killed, 844 wounded, and 375 missing) at Pleasant Hill. Nearly all the Federal wounded were left behind in accordance with Banks’s orders. The Confederates lost about 1,200 men killed or wounded and 426 captured; Smith’s report of 1,000 prisoners was exaggerated. Confederate Brigadier General Hamilton P. Bee reported that his men spent the 10th “burying the dead of both armies and caring for the Federal wounded, our own wounded having been cared for the night before.”

General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department from Shreveport, learned about the unauthorized fight at Mansfield early on the 9th and rode out to take personal command of Taylor’s men. He arrived at Taylor’s headquarters at 10 p.m., when he learned that the second unauthorized fight had just ended. Taylor pleaded with Smith to let him pursue Banks, but Smith refused. Taylor was to return to Shreveport, and Smith would soon be sending most of Taylor’s command to face Steele in Arkansas.

A bizarre scene unfolded the next day, as both armies that had fought at Pleasant Hill retreated. Taylor reluctantly pulled his Confederates back toward Mansfield, and Banks hurried his Federals back down the Red River to Grand Ecore. Banks had won his greatest victory of the campaign, but he squandered it by retreating. Thus, Shreveport remained in Confederate hands.

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References

Castel, Albert, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 587; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20639; 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. 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 1050-60, 1069-99; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 416-17; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 60-63; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 482-83; 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. 722; 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. 193; 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 Battle of Mansfield

April 8, 1864 – Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federals unexpectedly ran into Confederates under Major General Richard Taylor blocking their path to Shreveport.

Gen Richard Taylor | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Taylor, commanding Confederate forces in Louisiana, had discussed strategy with General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Trans-Mississippi Department. Smith preferred Taylor to stay on the defensive and give battle only if Banks’s Army of the Gulf confronted him. Taylor wanted to take the fight to Banks. When the discussion ended and Smith returned to his headquarters, Taylor asked permission to attack only when Smith could not answer in time to stop him.

Taylor had about 8,500 men in three divisions under Major General John G. Walker, and Brigadier Generals Alfred Mouton and Thomas Green. Brigadier General Thomas J. Churchill’s 5,000 Confederates were on their way from Keachi, but Taylor would not wait for them. Having helped “Stonewall” Jackson defeat Banks in the Shenandoah Valley two years before, Taylor was confident that he could whip Banks, even without Churchill’s help.

Taylor positioned his troops near Sabine Crossroads, three miles south of Mansfield and 35 miles south of Shreveport. Waiting for Banks to come within striking distance, two Confederate divisions held one side of the road and one division held the other. One of Taylor’s officers predicted that Banks would be “most seriously flogged.”

Banks had 27,000 Federals, but they were advancing in a single column on a narrow road. Their line stretched nearly 20 miles, with the wagon train interspersed among the troops. Therefore, only about 12,000 men were available for action on the 8th.

Having moved inland along what Banks thought was a shortcut to Shreveport, the Federal army was no longer protected by Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s gunboats on the Red River. But that did not seem to concern Banks, considering that the Confederates had retreated every time his men applied a little pressure.

The Federals began assembling on Honeycutt Hill, opposite Sabine Crossroads, on the morning of the 8th. Federal cavalry tried probing the enemy positions, but the Confederates drove them back. Taylor’s men were partially concealed in thick woods, leading some Federals to speculate that he had been reinforced by Major General Sterling Price’s Arkansas army.

Mansfield Battle Map | Image Credit: Civil War Trust

Banks spent most of the day pondering whether to attack. Taylor, fearful that Federal reinforcements would arrive and E.K. Smith would cancel the attack, ordered an assault at 3:30 p.m. His center division, led by Brigadier General Alfred Mouton, rushed forward like “infuriated demons.” Federal gunners and infantry quickly opened on them in what Taylor called a “murderous fire of artillery and musketry.”

Mouton’s Louisianans crashed into Banks’s right, east of the road, forcing the Federals off Honeycutt Hill. Mouton was killed in the attack. His replacement, Brigadier General Camille Polignac, helped secure the victory. As Taylor reported, “The gallant Polignac pressed the shattered division stubbornly and steadily onward after Mouton fell.”

During this time, Taylor received Smith’s reply to his request to attack Banks: “A general engagement now could not be given with our full force. Reinforcements are moving up–not very large, it is true… Let me know as soon as you are convinced that a general advance is being made and I will come to the front.” Taylor told the courier, perhaps prematurely, “Too late, sir. The battle is won.”

Taylor next deployed Walker’s Texas division west of the road. The Texans quickly worked their way around the Federal left, severely wounding XIII Corps commander, Brigadier General Thomas E.G. Ransom, in the process. The Federal line broke and fell back to a second line. Taylor notified Smith around 6 p.m., “We have driven the enemy at this hour 3 miles.”

The second Federal line held briefly but then broke as well, causing panic and sending the Federals fleeing in confusion. Taylor reported to Smith at 7:30, “Since my last I have driven the enemy at least 3 miles farther.” Taylor ordered a pursuit, which resulted in the capture of several men, horses, and guns.

The Federal retreat became disorganized due to the wagons blocking the narrow road, but the Confederate pursuit became just as disrupted because the troops stopped to loot the wagons. Brigadier General William H. Emory’s division of XIX Corps finally regrouped and made a stand at Pleasant Grove. This prevented a complete rout, as the Federals repelled the last Confederate charge near sundown.

The Federals sustained 2,235 casualties (113 killed, 581 wounded and 1,541 missing). This was one of the most humiliating Federal defeats of the war, with Taylor reporting that it “was largely due to the ignorance and arrogance of its commander, Banks, who attributed my long retreat to his own wonderful strategy.”

In addition to the men, Banks lost 20 guns, 200 wagons, and about 1,000 horses or mules. Perhaps most importantly, he had lost the precious time needed to capture Shreveport and return Major General William T. Sherman’s men to Vicksburg by the April 15 deadline.

The Confederates lost about 1,100 killed or wounded. Taylor informed E.K. Smith, “We have captured about 2,000 prisoners, 20 pieces of artillery, 200 wagons, and thousands of small-arms,” but “our loss in officers has been severe, and we have many wounded.” Churchill’s men had come up late in the fight, but Taylor did not deploy them. Taylor told Smith that he would “continue to push the enemy with the utmost vigor.”

Banks held a council of war at 10 p.m. His demoralized men were far from naval support (Porter was stalled in low water at Springfield Landing), and worse, they were far from adequate drinking water. It was decided that the army should withdraw to Pleasant Hill, 15 miles east. The Federal retreat began around midnight, and the drive on Shreveport was ingloriously aborted. But Taylor was not finished with Banks yet.

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References

Castel, Albert, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 473-74; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; 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. 390-91; 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 880-90, 952-81; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 415; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 56-60; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 173; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 482; 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. 722; Robbins, Peggy, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 590; 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

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: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

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.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; 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: Wikimedia.org

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.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; 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: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

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: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

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.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; 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