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: Flickr.com

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.”

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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; 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

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Red River: The Federal Two-Pronged Advance Finally Begins

March 24, 1864 – Major General Frederick Steele’s Federals finally began moving out of Little Rock, and Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federals finally reached Alexandria.

Maj Gen Frederick Steele | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Steele reported that his Army of Arkansas (officially the 3rd Division of VII Corps) numbered about 7,000 men, and that it was inadequate to support the Red River campaign as ordered. Steele argued that Banks’s Army of the Gulf, which numbered about 27,000 men, was strong enough to take care of itself, and moving through southern Arkansas would be treacherous due to lack of forage.

Finally, after repeated orders from his superiors, Steele agreed to move south. He told Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant on the 18th that he planned “to concentrate my forces at Arkadelphia, about 10,000 strong, move from there on Camden and open communication back to Pine Bluff, and then move on Shreveport in time to co-operate with Banks at that point.”

When Steele requested more horses for transportation, Major General William T. Sherman, commanding the Military Division of the Mississippi, replied, “It is now too late to make preparations for the expedition which should have started on the 7th.” Sherman would not provide Steele with any horses until he explained “the cause of this delay.”

Finally, Steele assembled his army and prepared to move out of Little Rock on the 23rd, a week and a half after being ordered to move by Grant. He planned to link with Federals from Fort Smith under Brigadier General John M. Thayer at Arkadelphia, which would increase the force to about 10,400 men. Steele continued complaining that he lacked food for his men and horses, and Confederate cavalry regularly assailed his flanks.

In Louisiana, Banks arrived at Alexandria on the 24th, a week behind schedule. Banks learned that water levels on the Red River were lowering, which could potentially hamper naval operations. Meanwhile, Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the Federal naval squadron, reported that his vessels had seized over 2,000 bales of cotton, along with vast amounts of molasses and wool, since entering the Red. All goods had been sent to Federals downriver or destroyed.

Confederate General E.K. Smith | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, did not believe that Louisiana could be held. He therefore ordered Major General Richard Taylor to withdraw his Louisiana forces to Shreveport and await reinforcements from Texas and Arkansas. These forces would then move north and join with Major General Sterling Price’s troops opposing Steele in Arkansas. Smith had previously told Taylor, “The only field for great results in this is the District of Arkansas, and a concentration must be made there this summer for the recovery of the Arkansas Valley.”

Price’s Confederates were stationed near Washington, Arkansas, about 120 miles southwest of Steele’s Federals at Little Rock. Price urged Smith to send him all troops from Texas and Louisiana so he could move north, defeat Steele, and then continue north to regain his home state of Missouri. Smith explained to Price that the numbers needed for such a campaign were not available.

As more intelligence was received, Smith came to believe that Steele posed no major threat, and Taylor’s assertion that Louisiana could be saved was correct. Smith therefore pulled 5,000 Confederates from Price’s army under Brigadier General Thomas J. Churchill to reinforce Taylor. Smith then began arranging for the rest of Price’s men to join Taylor at Natchitoches, and if the Federals moved north from Alexandria to confront them, “bring matters to an issue.”

Smith resolved to defend Shreveport, the military, political, and economic center of his Trans-Mississippi Department. This would involve defeating the strong Federal force coming up the Red River first, and then turning north to defeat Steele’s weaker force in Arkansas.

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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; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20604-13; 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. 387-88; 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, 1348-58; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 411; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 51, 54, 63; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 476-77

Reorganizing the Army of the Potomac

March 23, 1864 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant took up headquarters with the Army of the Potomac in northern Virginia, which was undergoing a massive reorganization.

Maj Gen G.G. Meade | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, had initially thought that Grant would remove him from command. But now he was fairly confident that Grant would keep him on. Meade wrote his wife, “I don’t think I have at any time been in any danger. It would be almost a farce to relieve the man who fought the battle of Gettysburg…”

However, Meade’s superiors at Washington had urged him to reorganize his army because of attrition and, according to Meade, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton told him that “there were several officers in my army that did not have the confidence of the country, and that I was injuring myself by retaining them.” These were mainly anti-administration Democrats.

Meade responded by ordering a massive restructuring of the army. Major General Winfield Scott Hancock returned to active duty after being wounded at Gettysburg and resumed command of II Corps. The former commander, Major General Gouverneur Warren, was placed in charge of V Corps, ousting Major General George Sykes.

Major General Alfred Pleasonton was removed as head of the Cavalry Corps, replaced by Brigadier General David M. Gregg. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton urged Meade to remove Major General John Sedgwick as the head of VI Corps due to his past loyalty to George B. McClellan, but Meade held firm on retaining him.

The hardest blow came with the disbanding of I and III corps under Major Generals John Newton and William French respectively. The troops in these ruined commands could keep their corps insignias, but they would be absorbed into II and V corps. Men of III Corps, still loyal to their former commander, Major General Daniel Sickles, held “indignation” meetings to protest the move.

During this reorganization, Meade came under heavy criticism for his handling of the Battle of Gettysburg; this stemmed mainly from a New York Herald article written by an unknown author named “Historicus.” The article claimed that Meade had planned to retreat after the first day. It also greatly praised Sickles for ignoring orders and marching his III Corps forward from Cemetery Ridge, which somehow saved the Federal army (though it actually decimated the corps and lost Sickles a leg).

Historicus wrote that Sickles’s advance was “made in the very face of the enemy, who were advancing in columns of attack, and Sickles dreaded lest the conflict should open before his dispositions were completed. At this juncture he was summoned to report in person at headquarters, to attend a council of corps commanders.” The article plainly suggested that Sickles sacrificed his men to save Meade from blundering into defeat.

Meade sent the article to President Abraham Lincoln with a letter stating that “the character of the communication enclosed bears such manifest proofs that it was written either by some one present at the battle, or dictated by some one present and having access not only to official documents, but to confidential papers that were never issued to the Army, much less made public.”

Meade charged, “I cannot resist the belief that this letter was either written or dictated by Major General D.E. Sickles,” and he asked for “the interposition of the (War) Department, as I desire to consider the questions raised purely official.” Meade demanded that the department “take steps to ascertain whether Major General Sickles has authorized or endorses this communication, and in the event of his reply in the affirmative I have to request the President of the U.S. a court of inquiry that the whole subject may be thoroughly investigated and the truth made known.”

Meade’s supporters quickly wrote rebuttals to Historicus’s article. Meade wrote his wife, “I think Historicus after awhile will be sick of his only true and authentic account of the battle.” After waiting nearly two weeks, Meade finally received a reply from Lincoln on the matter:

“It is quite natural that you should feel some sensibility on the subject; yet I am not impressed, nor do I think the country is impressed, with the belief that your honor demands, or the public interest demands, such an Inquiry. The country knows that, at all events, you have done good service; and I believe for you to be engaged in trying to do more, than to be diverted, as you necessarily would be, by a Court of Inquiry.”

Meade then asked Stanton to force Sickles to either admit his involvement or repudiate the Historicus article. After receiving Stanton’s response, Meade wrote his wife “that it was concluded submitting the letter to Sickles was only playing into his hands; that a court of inquiry, if called at my request, although it might exonerate me, yet it would not necessarily criminate him; and that, on the whole, it was deemed best not to take any action.” Historicus eventually wrote more articles, leaving no doubt that Sickles was the true author, but Meade ignored them.

The army observed Easter Sunday on the 27th with sermons from renowned Episcopalian Bishop Henry B. Whipple. Meade, who had been married by Whipple, invited him “to celebrate the Holy Communion at his headquarters on the Rapidan.” Meade wrote his wife that the Bishop delivered “two most appropriate and impressive discourses, well adapted to all classes of his hearers.”

In late March, Grant returned to the Army of the Potomac following his Cincinnati conference with Major General William T. Sherman. Grant established headquarters at Culpeper Court House, where he would oversee Meade’s army from this point forward. Meade’s wife criticized the move, but Meade defended it:

“You do not do Grant justice, and I am sorry to see it. You do not make a distinction between his own acts and those forced on him by the Government, Congress and public opinion. If left to himself, I have no doubt Grant would have let me alone; but placed in the position he holds, and with the expectations formed of him, if operations on a great scale are to be carried on here, he could not have kept aloof.

“As yet he had indicated no purpose to interfere with me, on the contrary, acts promptly on all my suggestions, and seems desirous of making his stay here only the means of strengthening and increasing my forces. God knows I shall hail his advent with delight if it results in carrying on operations in the manner I have always desired they should be carried on. Cheerfully will I give him all credit if he can bring the war to a close.”

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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. 387-88; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 411-13; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 477-79; Pritchard, Russ A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 746-47; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 172, 174; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 747

Red River: The Henderson’s Hill Engagement

March 21, 1864 – Portions of the Federal and Confederate armies clashed in Louisiana as the Federals looked to move farther up the Red River from Alexandria.

Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s Federal naval squadron and Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith’s 10,000 Federals had captured Alexandria on the 15th. There they waited for Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Army of the Gulf before continuing upriver to Shreveport. Banks was supposed to meet them there on the 17th, but he was delayed by political matters in New Orleans.

Banks’s cavalry began arriving at Alexandria on the 19th, and soon after Major General William B. Franklin’s XIX Corps of Banks’s army began heading up the lower Teche toward the town. When all the Federal army forces converged, Banks would have 27,000 men to go with Porter’s naval flotilla, which was the largest ever assembled on waters west of the Mississippi River.

General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, had an army in western Louisiana under Major General Richard Taylor that consisted of just 6,100 men (5,300 infantry, 500 cavalry, and 300 artillerists). Anticipating the Federals’ impending drive up the Red River to Shreveport, Smith issued orders to destroy a steamer below the town and plant 30 torpedoes (i.e., mines) in the Red below Grand Ecore.

Gen. J.A. Mower | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Meanwhile, Taylor dispatched his only cavalry force, the 2nd Louisiana under Colonel William Vincent, to reconnoiter the Federals at Alexandria and try to prevent Banks’s forces from joining them. As Vincent’s horsemen probed south, A.J. Smith dispatched a Federal cavalry brigade under Colonel Thomas J. Lucas to scout northward, supported by Brigadier General Joseph A. Mower’s infantry division (under Mower’s overall command).

The Federals set out along the Bayou Rapides (a tributary of the Red River) on the morning of the 21st. Lucas’s cavalry met the Confederate troopers and drove them back seven miles to the southern base of Henderson’s Hill, about 20 miles from Alexandria. Lucas waited for Mower’s infantry to come up, giving Vincent time to establish a defense line and start firing on the Federals with his artillery. Vincent also asked Taylor to send him Major General John G. Walker’s infantry division as reinforcement.

When Mower arrived, he directed Lucas to demonstrate against the enemy front while another force marched around the Confederate right. Colonel Sylvester Hill, commanding a brigade in the flanking movement, recalled that “after a tedious march of about eight miles, through marshes and a dense pine forest, in a hard rain and cold wind, we halted. The men were much fatigued and thoroughly wet, suffering from cold and a severe hail-storm; some were compelled from exhaustion to leave the ranks.”

The Federals got into position and attacked near nightfall. According to Lieutenant Colonel William Heath of the 33rd Missouri:

“The enemy’s pickets were relieved by the advance and placed under guard; a section of his battery, with caissons and horses, captured, and the center of his camp gained without raising any alarm or meeting any opposition, the enemy mistaking us for re-enforcements which had been requested from General Walker. Moving rapidly now, with fixed bayonets, through his camp, we succeeded, without resistance, except a few pistol-shots, in capturing a gun and limber and two caissons, all with horses complete, besides a number of prisoners, cavalry horses and equipments, and a few small arms.”

The Federals continued advancing and eventually captured “4 pieces of artillery (2 were loaded with canister), 4 caissons filled with fixed ammunition, 32 horses attached to the artillery, ready for immediate action; also 222 prisoners, including 16 officers, 126 horses equipped, 1 guidon, an ambulance with some surgical instruments and medicines, which the division surgeon took charge of, 92 stand of small-arms.” Vincent narrowly escaped capture.

The virtual annihilation of the 2nd Louisiana Cavalry left Taylor without mounted troops. Consequently, as he reported, “this disaster leaves me with little or no means of obtaining information in front of a very large force of the enemy’s cavalry.” Taylor blamed this loss on “the treachery of citizens,” and “deserters and jayhawkers” who showed the Federals “a road unknown to my best guides.”

Taylor prepared for a follow-up assault, but it never came. The Federals returned to Alexandria to continue awaiting Banks’s arrival. Taylor eventually pulled his remaining Confederates back north to Natchitoches and Mansfield, about 40 miles up the Red River, which had been supplied in anticipation of a possible retreat.

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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 20604-13; 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. 386; 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 638-58; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 410; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 51, 54; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 476-77

The Grand Federal Military Strategy

March 17, 1864 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant met with Major General William T. Sherman at Nashville, where Grant issued his first order since becoming general-in-chief of all Federal armies.

Federal General U.S. Grant | Image Credit: Wikispaces.org

The two close friends began discussing military strategy when they met in the Tennessee capital. Grant explained that he would take up headquarters in the Eastern Theater, giving Sherman complete command of the West. Grant then issued General Order No. 1: “I assume command of the Armies of the United States, headquarters in the field, and until notice these will be those of the Army of the Potomac.”

One of the main reasons why Grant chose to accompany the Army of the Potomac was because three other generals in Virginia–Major General Benjamin F. Butler commanding the Army of the James, Major General Franz Sigel commanding the Army of West Virginia, and Major General Ambrose E. Burnside commanding IX Corps from the Army of the Ohio–all outranked the army commander, Major General George G. Meade, and Grant sought to prevent any jealousy over the fact that Meade led the largest Federal army.

As Grant and Sherman talked, they were in danger of the swarming newspaper reporters learning and possibly divulging their secret plans. So they boarded a train and traveled to Cincinnati. When they found that the train noise made it almost impossible to converse, they waited until they reached their destination and booked a room at the Burnet House, where they posted a guard at the door, laid out their maps, and got down to business.

By this time, Federal forces occupied the mouth of the Rio Grande, the entire Mississippi River including New Orleans, Tennessee from Memphis to Chattanooga, West Virginia, and part of Virginia north of the Rapidan River. They also occupied the ports of Norfolk and Fort Monroe in Virginia; Plymouth, Washington, and New Bern in North Carolina; Beaufort, Hilton Head, Folly and Morris islands in South Carolina; and Fernandina, St. Augustine, Pensacola, and Key West in Florida. From these occupation points, Grant envisioned a campaign in which every major Federal army would launch an offensive simultaneously.

Grant now commanded 662,000 officers and men in 22 army corps, the largest command any Federal general ever had up to that time. If he could put them all in motion at once, they could quickly destroy the dwindling Confederate armies. Grant’s strategy consisted of:

  • The Army of the Potomac crossing the Rapidan River and confronting General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia
  • The Army of the James moving up the Virginia Peninsula and threatening Richmond and Petersburg from the east
  • The Army of West Virginia clearing Confederates out of the Shenandoah Valley
  • The Army of the Gulf moving east to threaten Mobile, Alabama
  • Sherman leading the Armies of the Ohio, Cumberland, and Tennessee in confronting General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee

Grant and Sherman would personally confront the two largest Confederate armies left in the field. Once Grant and Meade destroyed Lee’s army, they were expected to capture Richmond. Once Sherman destroyed Johnston’s army, he was expected to capture Atlanta.

A few days later, Grant headed back east and Sherman returned to Nashville, where he officially assumed Grant’s old command as head of the Military Division of the Mississippi. Near month’s end, Sherman issued orders closing the railroad line between Nashville and eastern Tennessee to all non-military traffic. When civilians protested that they needed the line to bring their goods to Nashville, Sherman instructed them to drive their goods and animals over the mountains by wagon like the old days because “his” railroad was too important to serve them.

In Virginia, Meade learned of Grant’s general order and wrote his wife, “I see General Grant’s assuming command and announcing that his headquarters will be with the Army of the Potomac, is in the public journals, and by to-morrow will be known in Richmond. Of course, this will notify the rebels where to look for active operations, and they will plan accordingly.”

Rumors began spreading among the Federal high command that Lieutenant General James Longstreet, whose Confederate corps had been stationed in eastern Tennessee after its failed siege of Knoxville, would soon be rejoining Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Henry W. Halleck, now the Federal army chief of staff, notified Grant that “it is thought that Longstreet is now with Lee, and that some movement will soon be made.”

Arriving at Washington, Grant met briefly with President Abraham Lincoln and then returned to the Army of the Potomac. Grant instructed Meade, “Lee’s army will be your objective point. Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also. The only point upon which I am now in doubt is, whether it will be better to cross the Rapidan above or below him.”

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 385-86, 395; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 966; 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 397-417; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 410; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 22-26, 37; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 476; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 500-01, 543

Forrest’s Confederates Enter Kentucky

March 16, 1864 – Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest launched a Confederate cavalry expedition into western Tennessee and Kentucky.

Brig Gen N.B. Forrest | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Forrest, stationed at Columbus, Mississippi, with 5,000 troopers, received orders to move north. His mission was to attack Federal outposts, recruit volunteers, capture deserters, and disrupt the Federal supply line along the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad. Forrest took 2,700 of his men on the excursion.

A little over a week later, a detachment of Forrest’s 7th Tennessee Cavalry surprised and captured the Federal 7th Tennessee Cavalry at Union City in northwestern Tennessee. The Confederates placed logs on wheels to resemble cannon and left a note: “If you persist in defense, you must take the consequences. N.B. Forrest, Major General, Commanding.” The Confederates took 481 prisoners, 300 horses, and a large amount of supplies.

Meanwhile, Forrest’s main force continued north toward Paducah, a strategic Kentucky town near the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers which had been under Federal control since September 1861. After riding 100 miles in 50 hours, the troopers arrived outside Paducah on the 25th. The Federals, led by Colonel Stephen G. Hicks, quickly fell back to Fort Anderson, a strong fortification west of town.

Hicks had just 665 men, but they were supported by artillery and two tinclad gunboats (the U.S.S. Peosta and Paw Paw) on the Tennessee River. Forrest sent Hicks a message: “If you surrender you shall be treated as prisoners of war, but if I have to storm your works you may expect no quarter.” Forrest did not actually intend to assault the fort; he only wanted horses and supplies.

The Federals responded to Forrest’s demand by blasting the streets with their artillery, joined by fire from the gunboats. Brigadier General Mason Brayman, the overall commander at Paducah, later wrote that the tinclads–

“… shelled the rebels out of the buildings from which their sharpshooters annoyed our troops. A large number took shelter in heavy warehouses near the river and maintained a furious fire upon the gunboats, inflicting some injury, but they were promptly dislodged and the buildings destroyed…”

Colonel Albert P. Thompson disregarded Forrest’s orders and led two regiments in an assault on Fort Anderson. The Federals repelled them, inflicting 50 casualties (10 killed and 40 wounded), though Hicks claimed to have inflicted 1,500 casualties. Thompson, who lived nearby, was among those killed. The Federals sustained 60 casualties (14 killed and 46 wounded).

Meanwhile, the gunboats fired about 700 rounds. According to a gunner on the Peosta:

“We kept putting the shell and grape into them from all the guns we could get to bear. Their riflemen and some of the people of the town got into the buildings down by the river and pelted us with musket balls but we soon gave them enough of that for we directed our whole fire on them at short range with shell grape and canister and soon fetched the bricks around their eyes… They would have had the fort and the city if it had not been for us, for they were out of ammunition in the fort.”

Forrest finally withdrew the next morning, taking 50 prisoners, 400 horses, and more supplies. Before leaving, the Confederates destroyed cotton and a steamer in dry dock. Forrest’s raid had alarmed residents of the Ohio River Valley, but the Confederates failed to establish a foothold in Kentucky. They fell back toward Fort Pillow on the Mississippi.

After Forrest left Paducah, he learned from a local newspaper that his troopers had missed out on capturing 140 army horses hidden in a mill. Forrest resolved to return next month and get those mounts.

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References

Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 385, 388; 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 2249-79; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 409, 411-12; Harrison, Lowell H., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 552; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 477-78; 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. 190

Red River: Federals Target Alexandria

March 15, 1864 – Federal army-navy forces followed up their capture of Fort DeRussy by continuing up the Red River in Louisiana.

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

The next objective for Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s naval squadron and Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith’s Federal troops was Alexandria. The Federal gunboats pursued Confederate vessels fleeing over the Alexandria rapids but could not overtake them. One Confederate ship, the Countess, was grounded while fleeing; her crew burned her to prevent capture.

Once Porter and Smith reached Alexandria, they were supposed to meet Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Army of the Gulf coming up from New Orleans. But Banks was helping to install a new Unionist Louisiana government and still had not yet left New Orleans. Banks received a message from Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, that began in part:

“I have not fully determined upon a plan of campaign for this spring, but will do so before the return of our veteran troops to the field. It will, however, be my desire to have all parts of the Army, or rather all the armies, act as much in concert as possible. For this reason I now write you…”

Grant wrote that although he regarded “the success of your present move as of great importance in reducing the number of troops necessary for protecting the navigation of the Mississippi River,” Banks was to “commence no move for the further acquisition of territory” beyond Shreveport. Grant added, “It is also important that Shreveport should be taken as soon as possible,” so that A.J. Smith could go “back to Memphis as soon as possible.”

Major General Nathaniel P. Banks | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Regarding the timetable, Grant warned that if capturing Shreveport took longer than expected, Banks was to send Smith’s troops back to Major General William T. Sherman, who was planning a drive on Atlanta. Banks was to return these men “even if it leads to the abandonment of the main object of your expedition.”

If Banks accomplished his mission, he was to “hold Shreveport and the Red River with such force as you may deem necessary, and return the balance of your troops to the neighborhood of New Orleans. I would not at present advise the abandonment of any portion of territory now held west of the Mississippi, but commence no move for the further acquisition of territory unless it be to make that now ours more easily held.”

Grant explained that he was writing this to Banks because he considered “the conquering of the organized armies of the enemy as being of vastly more importance than the mere acquisition of territory.” Grant then advised Banks on supplying his army:

“There is one thing, general, I would urge, and don’t know but what you have already, and that is of supplying your army as far as possible from the country occupied. Mules, horses, forage, and provisions can be paid for, where taken from persons who have taken the amnesty oath prescribed by the President (if the oath be taken before the loss of property), with both economy and convenience.”

It was implied that supplies and property taken from civilians who refused to pledge loyalty to the U.S. would not be compensated.

Grant then wrote Major General Frederick Steele, commanding the Federal Army of Arkansas at Little Rock. Steele had been ordered to move south and join Banks at Shreveport, but he had protested due to lack of forage in southern Arkansas, and because Banks already had sufficient resources. Grant wrote, “Move your force in full cooperation with General N.P. Banks’ attack on Shreveport. A mere demonstration will not be sufficient.”

Major General Richard Taylor, commanding Confederate forces at Alexandria, had hoped that the garrison at Fort DeRussy would hold out long enough for him to establish defenses. But the fort had surrendered almost immediately, leaving Taylor no choice but to abandon the town. The Confederates evacuated all the supplies they could, and their last steamer left Alexandria on the morning of the 15th. The leading nine vessels of the Federal squadron arrived a half-hour later.

Lieutenant Commander Thomas O. Selfridge of the U.S.S. Osage led a party ashore that occupied Alexandria without opposition. Porter and A.J. Smith’s 10,000 Federals arrived later that day. The troops seemed unimpressed with Alexandria; one called it “rather a big village than a city.” Porter later wrote, “The inhabitants were respectfully treated, and everything was as quiet as a New England village.” But at least one resident disagreed:

“Immediately on disembarking, they were permitted to rush through the streets of the town, unrestrained by the presence of their officers. They made an indiscriminate onslaught upon every private residence, appropriating to themselves everything valuable upon which they could lay their hand–and the depositories of food were at once forced open and their contents borne away.

“The drug stores, three in number, were among the first places taken possession of. These were at once despoiled of their contents, which were used in furnishing their hospitals in town, and one devoted to the reception of cases of small pox, two miles below town. Forty-four cases of this disease were landed from the transports on the day of their arrival.

“The stores of all descriptions underwent a similar spoliation; the iron safes forced and emptied, the ledgers, promissory notes, and accounts destroyed. Private residences were entered at night; writing desks, bureaus and armoirs rifled, and the occupants insulted and abused in the grossest manner, despite the efforts of the provost marshal, Captain Wolf, who evinced every disposition to afford protection to those applying to him for guards about their premises.”

Another resident claimed that the Federals especially wanted cotton, writing that after Porter’s flagship arrived–

“… her crew entered Rachal’s warehouse, rolled out the cotton, all of which was private property, and marked on one end C.S., and on the other U.S.N., thus endeavoring to make it appear the cotton was captured property of the Confederate Government. Rear Admiral Porter was present, witnessed the fraud, and seemed in high glee at the adroitness with which his rascally ingenuity could outwit Banks, and appropriate the spoils of the expedition. The same thing was repeated in every yard, barn, and cuthouse where they found cotton. They seemed to believe it was hidden everywhere.”

A few days later, Federal Quartermaster D.N. Welch corroborated this account: “The navy is seizing all the cotton they can get hold of. Every gun-boat is loaded with cotton, and the officers are taking it without regard to the loyalty of the owners. It looks to me like a big steal.”

Banks’s chief engineer, Major D.C. Houston, later testified before Congress that sailors “were seizing cotton in the vicinity of Alexandria, and bringing it in there and putting it on board barges and other vessels as prize, as I understood at the time.” Houston did not know if Porter directed such activity, but “it was all in plain sight; I should think he could not help seeing it.” Houston also testified that it was “rather demoralizing to the soldiers to see the navy seizing the cotton for prize on land, while they did not get any.”

Federal forces continued their occupation of Alexandria while they waited for the rest of Banks’s army (XIX Corps and two divisions of XIII Corps) to join 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 20604; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 385; 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 321-41, 1334-44; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 409; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 51, 54; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 475