Tag Archives: David D. Porter

The Destruction of the C.S.S. Florida

November 28, 1864 – The famed Confederate commerce raider C.S.S. Florida, which had been captured under dubious circumstances in October, suspiciously sank before she could be returned.

C.S.S. Florida | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Commander Napoleon Collins of the U.S.S. Wachusett had captured the Florida while she was docked in a Brazilian port. Brazilian authorities protested that such an action violated international law because Brazil had proclaimed neutrality in the war. However, Collins argued that Brazil had allowed the Florida to bring prizes of war to Brazilian ports, making her fair game for capture. Collins and his crew towed the Confederate vessel back to America.

Collins arrived to a hero’s welcome at Norfolk on the 12th. However, Secretary of State William H. Seward was outraged by Collins’s violation of Brazil’s neutrality and demanded that he return the Florida to Brazilian authorities.

Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, docked the Florida at Hampton Roads, where she awaited her return to Brazil. During this time, an army transport crashed into the Florida and sank her.

An international court most likely would have ruled that the U.S. had wrongly seized the Florida in the first place and demanded her return. Therefore, some alleged that this was an intentional act to prevent the Florida from being returned.

Collins was court-martialed for seizing the Florida and dismissed from the navy. He defended his actions by saying, “I respectfully request that it may be entered on the records of the court as my defense that the capture of the Florida was for the public good.” Navy Secretary Gideon Welles eventually reinstated him.

The U.S. government agreed to apologize to Brazil, and in July 1866, the crew of the U.S.S. Nipsic fired a 21-gun salute as an amende honorable in Bahia Harbor, where the Florida had been seized.

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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. 486; 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 12344-65; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 519; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 264; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 263; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971)

The Sinking of the C.S.S. Albemarle

October 28, 1864 – A young Federal officer led a daring raid to destroy the most dangerous Confederate vessel in North Carolina.

The Confederate ironclad ram C.S.S. Albemarle had protected the Roanoke River and Plymouth from Federals throughout the summer. During that time, Rear Admiral Samuel P. Lee, commanding the Federal North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, developed a plan to destroy the Albemarle and take back control of the Roanoke. The plan was entrusted to 21-year-old Lieutenant William B. Cushing.

Lt. William B. Cushing | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Cushing planned to fit two steam launches with a 12-pound howitzer in each bow, along with a lanyard-controlled torpedo tied to a 14-foot spar. The launches would boldly steam up to the Albemarle and sink her by detonating the torpedoes. One of the launches was lost at sea, but Cushing intended to execute his plan with his remaining launch.

A bold reconnaissance revealed that the Albemarle was moored at Plymouth, giving Cushing the information he needed to proceed. However, the U.S.S. Southfield, which had been destroyed by the Albemarle and then converted into a Confederate patrol vessel, needed to be bypassed first. Cushing tied a cutter to his launch, and the force aboard the cutter “was to dash aboard the Southfield at the first hail and prevent any rocket from being ignited.”

Cushing and 14 men left the Federal blockading squadron on the night of the 26th, but their launch ran aground upon reaching the Roanoke River. The crew spent the night freeing the vessel, forcing Cushing to postpone the attack until the following evening.

The launch moved eight miles up the Roanoke in the darkness of the 27th and 28th. The crew had placed a tarpaulin over the vessel’s engine to muffle the sound. The Federals advanced close to the riverbank, undetected by Confederate pickets. They passed the Southfield unnoticed, but a guard aboard the Albemarle spotted the launch and called out to it. Cushing reported:

“Just as I was sheering in close to the wharf a hail came sharp and quick from the ironclad, in an instant repeated. I at once directed the cutter to cast off and go down to capture the guard left in our rear (i.e., the Southfield), and ordering all steam, sent the launch at the dark mountain of iron in front of us. A heavy fire at once opened upon us, not only from the ship, but from the men stationed on the shore, but this did not disable us and we neared them rapidly.”

The Confederates onshore started a fire to reveal the launch. The fire also revealed to Cushing that the Albemarle was surrounded by protective logs. Undaunted, Cushing approached the ironclad at full speed, firing the howitzer as he advanced. He directed the launch up over the slimy logs, thrust the spar below the Albemarle, and jerked the lanyard. This detonated the torpedo and sank the ship.

Explosion of C.S.S. Albemarle | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The blast also sank the launch, forcing the Federals to abandon ship and swim for it. Two men drowned and 11 were captured; only Cushing and one other man escaped. Cushing separated from the other man and hid on the riverbank until morning. He then stole a Confederate boat, rowed back down the Roanoke, and was rescued by the U.S.S. Valley City. The Federals fired celebratory rockets from their ships as news spread of the Albemarle’s demise. In his official report, Cushing wrote:

“The most of our party were captured, some were drowned, and only one escaped besides myself, and he in another direction… Completely exhausted, I managed to reach the shore… While hiding a few feet from the path, two of the Albemarle’s officers passed, and I judged from their conversation that the ship was destroyed.”

This was one of the most daring exploits of the war. Cushing was later promoted to lieutenant commander and given the thanks of Congress. The destruction of the Albemarle enabled Federal naval forces to once again try to regain control of the Roanoke and the important city of Plymouth.

The day after the Albemarle was destroyed, Commander William H. Macomb assembled a squadron of seven Federal vessels to recapture Plymouth. Six ships went up the Roanoke, while the Valley City went up the Middle River to reach a point upstream from Plymouth. The ships on the Roanoke were stopped by obstructions that Confederates had placed in the water near the Southfield. They backed down the river and instead followed the Valley City up the Middle.

After negotiating the sharp bends in the Middle throughout the 30th, Macomb’s squadron approached Plymouth the next day. The Confederates defending the town were not only without the Albemarle, but their garrison had been stripped when Major General Robert F. Hoke’s division was transferred to Petersburg. Both sides exchanged artillery fire (the U.S.S. Commodore Hull was seriously damaged) until a magazine exploded, forcing the Confederates to abandon the town.

Federals from the U.S.S. Wyalusing seized Fort Williams, taking 37 prisoners and 22 guns. Two Federal vessels moved upstream and destroyed two Confederate ironclads under construction. Both Navy Secretary Gideon Welles and Rear Admiral David D. Porter, the new commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, expressed gratitude for Macomb’s actions. The destruction of the Albemarle enabled Federals to regain control of Plymouth, the Roanoke River, and Albemarle Sound.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 97; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 199-200; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 476, 479-82; 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 12470-80; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 514-16; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 589-91; 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. 185; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 5; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 83

The Red River Campaign Ends

May 20, 1864 – One of the greatest Federal military disasters of the war finally ended.

Federals under Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Bailey, an engineer by trade, had been building a dam on the Red River in Louisiana for the past 10 days to raise the water level. This would enable Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s naval flotilla to pass through and get to Federal lines before Confederates on shore could destroy the vessels. The dam had burst on the 10th, but four ships got through, and work began on a stronger dam at the upper falls so the rest of Porter’s fleet could pass.

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

The new dam was breeched on the 11th, as thousands of Federal troops used ropes to pull the ironclads U.S.S. Carondelet, Mound City, and Pittsburgh over the upper falls. All three vessels, with their hatches battened down, made it through the rapids safely (the Mound City and Carondelet ran aground but were freed). Porter reported to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “The passage of these vessels was a beautiful sight, only to be realized when seen.”

The dam was then closed again to continue raising the water level. Over the next two days, the rest of Porter’s fleet successfully passed through the upper falls. Bailey and his workers then began building wing dams on the lower falls so that Porter could get his ships off the Red and onto the Mississippi River. Porter wrote Welles:

“The water had fallen so low that I had no hope or expectation of getting the vessels out this season, and as the army had made arrangements to evacuate the country I saw nothing before me but the destruction of the best part of the Mississippi squadron… Words are inadequate to express the admiration I feel for the abilities of Lieutenant Colonel Bailey. This is without doubt the best engineering feat ever performed… He has saved to the Union a valuable fleet, worth nearly $2,000,000…”

Bailey later received the thanks of Congress for saving the naval squadron.

As the ships began steaming down the Red, Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Army of the Gulf left Alexandria and continued its retreat, moving parallel with the fleet. The Federals resumed their pattern of destroying nearly every town they passed by burning Alexandria before leaving. A soldier wrote that “thousands of people, mostly women, children, and old men, were wringing their hands as they stood by the little piles of what was left of all their worldly possessions.” Reportedly only two houses remained standing in the town.

Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Meanwhile, Lieutenant General Richard Taylor, commanding Confederate forces in Louisiana, hoped to destroy Banks’s army before it could return to New Orleans. But being hopelessly outnumbered, Taylor had to wait for reinforcements from Arkansas to arrive. As he waited, he dispatched cavalry and other units to harass Banks’s Federals on their retreat.

On the 16th, the Federals found themselves blocked by a portion of Taylor’s force under Brigadier General Camille A. Polignac in an open prairie outside Mansura. A four-hour artillery duel erupted, after which Banks directed Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith’s Federals to attack. Taylor withdrew in the face of superior numbers, moving southwest while the Federals continued retreating southeast.

The Federal vanguard arrived at Simmesport on the Atchafalaya River, where Bailey’s Federals began building a makeshift bridge out of transports and riverboats so the Federals could cross the 600-yard-wide waterway. Around the same time, Porter’s flotilla finally reached the Mississippi River, ending its service in the Red River campaign.

Skirmishing resumed on the 17th, during which the main part of Banks’s army fell back to Yellow Bayou, about five miles from Simmesport. Bailey continued working on the bridge, leaving the Federals to fend Taylor’s Confederates off until they could get across to safety.

Taylor approached the Federals at Yellow Bayou with about 5,000 troops the next day. Banks responded by dispatching A.J. Smith and about 5,000 of his men to meet them. The Federals pushed the enemy skirmishers back before coming up to Taylor’s main line.

Both sides attacked and counterattacked over the next several hours, giving ground and taking it back, until a brushfire compelled both sides to disengage. In this brutal clash, the Federals sustained about 350 casualties while the Confederates lost 608. By the time the fight ended, the bridge spanning the Atchafalaya was ready.

The Federals crossed the river over the next two days, ending their failed Red River campaign. Since its beginning in March, Banks’s Federals had sustained 5,245 army and 300 naval casualties. They lost eight vessels (including three gunboats) and 28 guns. The seizure of 15,000 bales of cotton during the expedition did not make up for the losses or Banks’s failure to achieve his ultimate goal of capturing the vital cotton-producing city of Shreveport. One of Banks’s staff officers described the aftermath:

“Franklin quitted the department in disgust, Stone was replaced by Dwight as chief of staff, and Lee as chief of cavalry by Arnold; A.J. Smith departed more in anger than in sorrow; while between the admiral and the general commanding, recriminations were exchanged in language well up to the limits of ‘parliamentary’ privilege.”

Combined with Major General Frederick Steele’s Camden expedition in Arkansas, the Federals lost over 8,000 men and 57 guns. General Edmund Kirby Smith’s Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, which included Louisiana and Arkansas, lost a total of about 4,275 men. The Confederates had also captured well over 1,000 supply wagons and 3,500 horses or mules. They prevented Major General William T. Sherman from receiving reinforcements for his Georgia offensive, and they stopped Banks from turning east to attack Mobile, Alabama, as Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant had ordered him to do.

The only positive result for the Federals was that they somehow escaped complete destruction. The Confederates from Arkansas finally arrived to reinforce Taylor two days after the Federals had crossed the Atchafalaya. Unable to pursue any further, Taylor issued a congratulatory order to his men for their conduct during the campaign:

“Long will the accursed race remember the great river of Texas and Louisiana. The characteristic hue of its turbid waters has a darker tinge from the liberal admixture of Yankee blood. The cruel alligator and the ravenous garfish wax fat on rich food, and our native vulture holds high revelry over many a festering corpse.”

When Banks arrived at Simmesport, he was met by Major General Edward R.S. Canby, who informed him that his Department of the Gulf, as well as Steele’s Department of Arkansas, had been absorbed into Canby’s new Military Division of West Mississippi. Banks, who had presided over disasters in the Shenandoah Valley and Louisiana during the war, would now serve in an administrative capacity under a man three years his junior in date of rank.

Canby accompanied Banks on the last 100 miles of the retreat from Simmesport to Donaldsonville. Banks, a former House speaker and Massachusetts governor, would turn his attention back to political issues, mainly restoring Louisiana to the Union. Canby, whose jurisdiction extended from Missouri to Texas, and then east along the Gulf Coast to Florida, would eventually set his sights on capturing Mobile.

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References

Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20649-57; 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. 404-08, 412; 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 1757-86, 1792-802, 1820-30, 1840-918, 1928-48; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 431, 434, 436, 438-42; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 66, 68-71; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 496-501, 505; 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. 723; 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. 195; Pritchard, Russ A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 23, 330; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 816; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 751, 846

The Red River: Federal Disaster Looms

May 2, 1864 – Major General Frederick Steele’s Federal Army of Arkansas began returning to Little Rock, while Federal naval forces on the Red River in Louisiana were in grave danger of being stranded in shallow water.

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

By the beginning of May, the Federal mission to capture the vital cotton-producing city of Shreveport via the Red River and Arkansas had failed. Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Army of the Gulf was back where it started at Alexandria and Steele, who had been expected to meet Banks at Shreveport, was retreating from Camden to Little Rock. These two forces retreated intact, but Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s Federal naval flotilla on the Red River faced potential destruction.

The river had been falling for weeks, and the vessels that had moved upstream now did not have deep enough water to get back down. In late April, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Bailey had put Federals to work building dams that would raise the water and, when burst, create a current large enough for the vessels to float over the jagged rocks in the riverbed and steam to safety.

The Federals working to get the squadron downstream were under constant attack from Confederates on shore. The Confederates destroyed the Federal transport Emma at David’s Ferry, 30 miles below Alexandria, taking the captain and crew prisoner. A few days later, they captured the Federal transport City Belle at the same spot and took over a third of the 700 troops aboard prisoner (the rest jumped overboard to escape). Meanwhile, guerrillas clashed with Federals around the plantation of Louisiana Governor Thomas O. Moore.

At Dunn’s Bayou below Alexandria, Confederate infantry and shore batteries attacked the Federal transport Warner and her gunboat escorts, the U.S.S. Covington and Signal, as they rounded a bend. The Warner carried Ohio troops going home on furlough as a reward for reenlisting. She was immediately disabled and grounded in a bend near Pierce’s Landing.

The Confederates then disabled the Signal, forcing her to surrender when the Covington lost most of her crew and ran out of ammunition. In the first five days of May, Confederates had inflicted nearly 600 casualties while destroying two gunboats and three transports.

Maj Gen Frederick Steele | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

During this time, Steele’s demoralized Federals straggled back to Little Rock from Camden. In his mission to advance to Shreveport, Steele never even got out of Arkansas due to lack of supplies and Banks’s failure in Louisiana. Steele’s army sustained 2,750 casualties while losing nine guns and nearly 700 supply wagons. In his report, Steele called his campaign the “Camden expedition” without acknowledging that it was supposed to have been the “Shreveport expedition.”

Steele’s retreat allowed General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, to shift his primary focus from Arkansas to Louisiana. Smith issued orders for his Confederates at Camden to move “by the most direct route to Louisiana” to confront both Banks’s dispirited army and Porter’s vulnerable flotilla.

Lieutenant General Richard Taylor, commanding the Louisiana district under Smith, notified him that the Confederate victory at Dunn’s Bayou had turned the lower Red River into “a mare clausum. Forage and subsistence of every kind have been removed beyond the enemy’s reach. Rigid orders are given to destroy everything useful that can fall into his hands. We will play the game the Russians played in the retreat from Moscow.”

As Confederate troops hurried from Arkansas back to Louisiana, Bailey’s Federals continued working to dam the 758-foot-wide Red River. By the 8th, the dam had been built on either side of the river, leaving a 150-foot gap in the center. This raised the water level high enough for three of the lighter-draft gunboats (the U.S.S. Fort Hindman, Neosho, and Osage) to go through the upper falls, just before the dam.

On each dam wing, Bailey directed the sinking of two stone barges to raise the water even higher. However, two of the barges broke loose under the pressure, allowing a massive flood of water to surge through the chute in the center. Porter quickly ordered the three gunboats, along with the U.S.S. Lexington, to try passing on this wave. The Lexington tried first.

According to Porter, the timberclad “steered directly for the opening in the dam, through which the water was rushing so furiously that it seemed as if nothing but destruction awaited her. Thousands of beating hearts looked on anxious for the result; the silence was so great as the Lexington approached the dam that a pin might almost be heard to fall.”

The Lexington, “with a full head of steam on, pitched down the roaring torrent, made two or three spasmodic rolls, hung for a moment on the rocks below, was then swept into deep water by the current and rounded to, safely, into the bank. Thirty thousand voices rose in one deafening roar.” The next three gunboats also passed safely, after which Bailey’s Federals began working to shore up the dam for the rest of the flotilla to pass.

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References

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. 399-400; 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 1609-29, 1658-717; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 427, 429; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 65, 68; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 490-91, 493; 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. 195

Red River: Porter in Grave Danger

April 27, 1864 – Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s Federal naval flotilla reached Alexandria, Louisiana, but it was still faced potential destruction as the Red River continued falling.

Federal crewmen had worked tirelessly to rescue the gunboat U.S.S. Eastport after she hit a torpedo. But the vessel had grounded several times over the next five days, and, on the 26th, she grounded for the last time on the Alexandria rapids. Porter had no choice but to order the crew to destroy their ship. They used 3,000 pounds of gunpowder to blow the Eastport up before transferring to the U.S.S. Fort Hindman.

During this action, Confederate shore batteries and snipers attacked other nearby gunboats, in keeping with Lieutenant General Richard Taylor’s goal to “keep up a constant fight with the gunboats, following them with sharpshooters and killing every man who exposes himself.” Confederate forces tried boarding Porter’s flagship, the U.S.S. Cricket, but were beaten back.

As the Federal ships continued downriver, they came under artillery and rifle fire near the mouth of the Cane River (a tributary of the Red). The Champion No. 5, a transport carrying slaves to freedom, sustained a shot through her boiler that burned 100 slaves to death. The wooden gunboat Juliet was disabled but towed to safety by the Champion No. 3, also damaged.

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

Fighting resumed the next day, as the Confederate guns disabled the Fort Hindman and sent her drifting downstream. The Champion No. 5 was grounded and burned, and the Juliet sustained more damage. The heavy ironclad U.S.S. Neosho tried leading the other ships to safety under what Porter called “the heaviest fire I ever witnessed.”

Porter reached Alexandria later that day, where he met up with Major General Nathaniel P. Banks and the Army of the Gulf. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant had long sought for Banks to turn east and advance on Mobile, Alabama, and Banks had just received a message from Grant instructing him not to be “detained one day after the 1st of May in commencing your movement east of the Mississippi. No matter what you may have in contemplation, commence your concentration, to be followed without delay by your advance on Mobile.”

However, most of Porter’s fleet was still above the Alexandria rapids, which were becoming more impassable by the day. Banks assured Porter that he would not start his move on Mobile until Porter’s fleet had safely evacuated the Red River. Porter sent a pessimistic report to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles:

“… I find myself blockaded by the fall of three feet of water, three feet four inches being the amount now on the falls; seven feet being required to get over; no amount of lightening will accomplish the object… In the meantime, the enemy are splitting up into parties of 2,000 and bringing in the artillery… to blockade points below here…”

Porter acknowledged that he may have to scuttle his entire fleet to prevent it from falling into Confederate hands and wrote that “you may judge my feelings at having to perform so painful a duty.” He then offered a scathing account of the Red River campaign thus far:

“It has delayed 10,000 troops of Gen. (William T.) Sherman, on which he depended to open the State of Mississippi; it has drawn Gen. (Frederick) Steele from Arkansas and already given the rebels a foothold in that country; it has forced me to withdraw many light-draft vessels from points on the Mississippi to protect this army…”

A ray of hope appeared on the 29th when Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Bailey, an engineer with XIX Corps (and former Wisconsin lumberjack), proposed building a dam across the rapids to raise the water level to the required seven feet. Then, the dam would be opened and the vessels would ride the high current over the jagged rocks, past the rapids to safety. Porter later wrote:

“This proposition looked like madness, and the best engineers ridiculed it, but Col. Bailey was so sanguine of success that I requested Gen. Banks to have it done… two or three regiments of Maine men were set to work felling trees… every man seemed to be working with a vigor seldom seen equaled… These falls are about a mile in length, filled with rugged rocks, over which at the present stage of water it seemed to be impossible to make a channel.”

Work began on the 30th, as 3,000 Federals started building a dam of logs, rocks, and dirt spanning the 758-foot-wide Red River. The Federals also sunk four barges filled with stones to raise levels. The work continued into May, as Porter relied on this desperate engineering effort to save his naval flotilla.

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References

Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20649; 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. 396-97; 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 1247-57, 1276-96, 1629-49; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 424-26; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 68; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 488-89; 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. 194; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 292

Red River: Banks Tries Returning to Alexandria

April 21, 1864 – Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federals moved out of Grand Ecore, Louisiana, while struggling to salvage one of their best gunboats.

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

After his solid victory at Pleasant Hill, Banks decided not to press his advantage but instead retreat to Grand Ecore. As his troops and Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s naval flotilla on the Red River fell back, the U.S.S. Eastport was severely damaged by a torpedo. Federal carpenters worked nonstop for six days to try refloating the Eastport, and she was finally relaunched on the 21st. However, the gunboat grounded eight times over the next 60 miles.

Porter’s massive flotilla was in serious danger of being stuck in the falling Red River. Moreover, Banks feared that Lieutenant General Richard Taylor’s Confederates would attack again, unaware that three of Taylor’s divisions had been sent to Arkansas. This left just 5,000 Confederates to face Banks’s 30,000, but Taylor still looked to attack and Banks still looked to retreat.

In addition, Banks was being pressured by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant to end his campaign, as Grant had told Banks over a month ago that Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith’s 10,000 troops borrowed from Major General William T. Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee had to be returned by April 15. Banks argued that he could not return the men until Porter’s flotilla was out of harm’s way.

News of Banks’s failure to capture Shreveport had not yet reached Grant at his Culpeper, Virginia, headquarters, when he wrote Banks on the 18th. Grant expected Banks to turn east as soon as he captured Shreveport and advance on Mobile, Alabama. Grant wrote, “You cannot start too soon. All I would now add is that you commence the concentration of your force at once. Preserve a profound secrecy of what you intend doing, and start at the earliest possible moment.”

The next day, Banks issued orders for his force to fall back to Alexandria. They began moving out on the 21st, discarding any equipment that might slow their march. That same day, a messenger from Sherman arrived to request that Banks return A.J. Smith’s Federals to Vicksburg. Banks gave him a message for Sherman: “He refused to return Smith’s command. The naval force is caught in low water with shoals above and below.”

When this news reached Grant, he told Sherman that it “satisfies me of what I always believe, that forces sent to Banks would be lost for our spring campaign. You will have to make your calculations now leaving A.J. Smith out. Do not let this delay or embarrass, however. Leave for him, if he should return, such directions as you deem more advisable. He may return in time to be thrown in somewhere, very opportunely.”

Banks’s Federals stopped at Grand Ecore long enough to burn the main warehouse there. The fire quickly spread to other buildings until the entire town was destroyed. Meanwhile, A.J. Smith’s Federals moved out from Natchitoches and burned that town as well.

The Federals moved quickly amid rumors that Taylor was closing in on them with 25,000 men. They reached Cloutierville on the 22nd, having retreated 32 miles since the Battle of Mansfield. Vengeful Federal soldiers burned nearly every home, barn, warehouse, and cotton gin in their path. Such wanton destruction enraged Confederate Louisianans, most notably Taylor.

The outnumbered Confederates could not give battle, but they harassed the Federals on the retreat, forcing A.J. Smith to deploy his rear guard to fend them off. Meanwhile, a Confederate cavalry division under Brigadier General Hamilton P. Bee worked its way around to Banks’s front and secured high ground overlooking Monett’s Ferry on the Cane River, a tributary of the Red. The Federals needed the ferry to cross the Cane.

On the morning of the 23rd, Brigadier General William H. Emory’s Federals approached Monett’s Ferry (also known as Cane River Crossing). His cavalry “skirmished handsomely and briskly, driving in the enemy’s pickets until they got to the line of battle occupied by the enemy, which was very strong and defended by two batteries of eight pieces each, which crossed their fire on an open field, through which it was necessary to pass before we could reach the enemy’s position.”

Emory noted the Confederates on the bluffs across the river and bombarded them with artillery while two brigades went looking for another crossing. Troops under Brigadier General Henry W. Birge found an unguarded crossing about three miles upstream but, as Emory reported:

“The ground over which Birge had to pass was exceedingly difficult, traversed by muddy bayous, high and sharp ridges covered by a dense growth of pink, and other topographical difficulties. His progress was necessarily very slow and tedious, and he did not get into position until late afternoon.”

Birge’s Federals began firing on Bee’s left flank. This unexpected attack and the artillery fire in front compelled the Confederates to retreat. The Federals built a pontoon bridge across the Cane, allowing Banks’s army to cross the next day and continue their retreat to Alexandria. Federals suffered about 300 casualties in this fight, while Confederates lost about 50.

Taylor lodged several complaints against Bee’s conduct in the engagement, such as sending a brigade to guard a wagon train “for the safety of which I had amply provided for,” building no earthworks or other defenses, massing his troops in the center “where the enemy were certain not to make any decided effort,” and falling back 30 miles instead of counterattacking.

By the 25th, Banks’s exhausted, demoralized troops arrived at Alexandria, the starting point of their failed effort to capture Shreveport. But Taylor’s Confederates still operated in the vicinity, and Porter’s flotilla was still in danger of being trapped above the Red River rapids. Confederate forces attacked the vessels from the riverbanks, inflicting serious damage.

Federal Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck notified Grant of Banks’s failure, which had been relayed to Halleck by Porter. Halleck told Grant, “Whatever may be said, the army there has met with a great defeat and is much demoralized.” Actually, the army had not met with any defeat except at Mansfield, but Banks retreated anyway. Halleck wrote that Porter “speaks in strong terms of Banks’ mismanagement and of the good conduct of A.J. Smith and his corps. He fears that if Smith is withdrawn Banks will retreat still farther.”

Grant replied, “A.J. Smith will have to stay with General Banks until the gunboats are out of difficulty… Banks ought to be ordered to New Orleans and have all further execution on the Red River in other hands.” Grant then stated that he had received two reports giving “deplorable accounts of General Banks’ mismanagement.” These, along with Banks’s own report on the campaign “clearly show all his disasters to be attributable to his incompetency.”

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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 20649; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 111; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 395; 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 1139-68, 1197-217, 1237-57; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 420, 422-24; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 66-67, 70; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 485-88; 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. 194

Red River: Banks Misses His Deadline

April 15, 1864 – The deadline arrived for Major General Nathaniel P. Banks to return Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal troops, even though Banks had failed to capture Shreveport and the Red River was falling dangerously low.

Federal General Nathaniel Banks | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant had instructed Banks to finish his Red River expedition by mid-April, “even if it led to the abandonment of the main object,” which was the capture of Shreveport, Louisiana. Unaware that Banks was retreating, Grant notified Sherman that Banks had been ordered to end his campaign, and Major General Frederick Steele had been instructed to try capturing Shreveport on his own. Grant wrote Sherman, “Please give Steele such directions as you think necessary to carry out this direction.”

Sherman wrote Steele explaining that he should work in cooperation with Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s Federal naval squadron. Shreveport and Alexandria “are the strategic points of Louisiana. Shreveport, if held in strength, covers all Arkansas and Louisiana, and is the proper offensive point as against Texas. If able, therefore, Shreveport should be captured, supplied well at present stage of water and held in force, communications kept up with New Orleans by water and with Fort Smith (Arkansas) by land.”

If Shreveport could not be taken, Sherman urged Steele to try taking Alexandria, as “the enemy could not approach the Mississippi River, and would hardly cross Red River as against Arkansas and Missouri. If you can accomplish in Red River what you did in Arkansas, you will be entitled to the gratitude and admiration of all sensible men.”

But replacing Banks with Steele would not be so easy. Porter’s squadron, in danger of being stuck on the falling Red River, withdrew to Grand Ecore after repelling a Confederate attack at Blair’s Landing. Upon learning of Banks’s ignominious retreat from Pleasant Hill, Porter wrote, “The army here has met with a great defeat, no matter what the generals try to make of it…” Porter then wrote Navy Secretary Gideon Welles:

“I found the fleet at Grand Ecore somewhat in an unpleasant situation, two of them being above the bar, and not likely to get away again this season unless there is a rise of a foot… If nature does not change her laws, there will no doubt be a rise of water, but there was one year–1846–when there was no rise in the Red River, and it may happen again… Had we not heard of the retreat of the Army, I should still have gone on to the end.”

By the 14th, the entire Federal command under both Banks and Porter was either at or nearing Grand Ecore. As the demoralized troops filed into the town, Banks expressed concern that Lieutenant General Richard Taylor’s Confederates may be reinforced to attack again. Banks was unaware that Taylor had been ordered to return to Mansfield, and most of his command had been transferred to face Steele in Arkansas.

General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, believed that “to win the campaign his (Steele’s) column must be destroyed. Banks is certainly so crippled that he cannot soon take the offensive.” Actually Banks was not crippled, but he was retreating as if he was. Looking to Arkansas, Smith wrote Taylor, “Great results are to be reached in that direction if Steele can be reached. Arkansas will be saved politically and the reoccupation of the Arkansas Valley accomplished.”

Taylor disagreed, but Smith reasoned, “Were Steele in retreat, the prompt pursuit of Banks would be wise, and might result in inflicting still greater losses upon him.” But pursuing Banks would not “offer the permanent results that would follow the defeat of Steele alone.”

Smith set his sights on reclaiming Arkansas, arguing that Louisiana could not be reclaimed as long as the Federals held New Orleans. He wrote, “Their naval superiority make this result (taking New Orleans) impossible. Prepare your command and organize your trains for rapid movement.” Smith personally led three divisions from Taylor’s command north toward Arkansas, leaving Taylor at Mansfield with a single division and his cavalry. Nevertheless, Taylor began moving west toward Banks as he proclaimed, “The enemy will be pressed to the end.”

Meanwhile, the day to return Sherman’s troops arrived, and Sherman received a message assuring him that the divisions from XVI and XVII corps under Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith would be coming as soon as possible. Sherman also received news about Steele’s troubles at Camden, which he passed along to Grant. Sherman reported that Steele “had had considerable skirmishing, in all of which he was successful,” but he did not seem willing or able to leave Camden any time soon. Sherman wrote, “It seems to me his movement is very slow, and he may be so late in reaching Red River as to keep Generals Banks and A.J. Smith away behind time.”

Sherman reminded Steele that “General Grant expects Generals Banks and A.J. Smith’s forces to come out of Red River for some other work very soon.” Smith was to return to Sherman and Banks was to redirect his forces toward Mobile, Alabama. Steele was to “push with all possible speed to make a junction on Red River,” as “Banks’ forces should by this time be in Shreveport.”

However, Banks had fallen back 70 miles south of Shreveport to Grand Ecore. Banks informed Steele of the failure without accepting any blame: “The enemy is in larger force than was anticipated by the Government,” and the enemy had “manifested his determination to fight for the possession of Shreveport and the country he now occupies, which was not anticipated by many of our officers.”

Banks acknowledged that his and Steele’s forces were so far apart “that it is impossible for either of us to sustain effectively the forces of the other.” But rather than sending A.J. Smith’s troops back to Sherman and looking toward Mobile as directed by Grant, Banks wanted to renew his drive on Shreveport: “If you can join us on this line, I am confident we can move to Shreveport without material delay, and that we shall have an opportunity of destroying the only organized rebel army west of the Mississippi.” The next day, Banks informed Smith that he could not send his Federals back to Sherman:

“The low stage of the water in Red River, and the difficulties encountered in our campaign consequent thereon makes it impossible for me to dispense with your services as soon as I anticipated. Did it not involve more than the abandonment of the expedition I might consider General Sherman’s orders as imperative, but it is impossible for the navy to remove below at this time, and the withdrawal of your command at this moment will place my forces at the mercy of the enemy, who is in larger force than General Sherman could have anticipated.”

However, Banks was unaware that Taylor had just one division and some cavalry to face his 27,000-man Federal army. Banks implied in his message that Porter agreed with his decision to retain Smith, and in a separate message, Porter did, but not in the way that Banks had explained.

Porter told Sherman that A.J. Smith was “anxious to go out and whip the rebels, which we are able to do without any trouble.” However, Porter warned “that I think General Banks is watching for an opportunity to retreat. If General Smith should leave him there would be a general stampede and much loss of material, and General A.J. Smith would be made the scapegoat.” Thus, Porter agreed with Banks that Smith should remain in Louisiana, but only because if Smith left and Banks was defeated, Smith would be blamed.

Porter asserted that “we must hold the country, general, and not have to go over all this again. Had Banks been victorious, as any ordinary general would have been, we would have had no trouble at all, but he has led all hands into an ugly scrape. I did all I could to avoid going up this river with him, but he would have thrown all the blame of failure on me had I failed to go.”

These messages would not reach Sherman for a few days. During that time, Sherman still believed that Banks and Smith, “with gun-boats, were well up toward Shreveport.” However, Banks was now in full retreat, leaving Porter to find some way to get his flotilla off the falling Red River.

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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 20639-49; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 393; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 420; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 66-67; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 485-86; 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. 194