Tag Archives: Red River Campaign

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.

—–

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

Advertisements

Red River: The Fall of Fort DeRussy

March 12, 1864 – Federal forces embarking on a campaign to conquer western Louisiana and eastern Texas approached a small Confederate fort on the first leg of their journey up the Red River.

By the 12th, the massive Red River campaign had begun. This was one of the largest Federal operations of the war, and all its moving parts had to work almost flawlessly for it to succeed:

  • Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith’s 10,000 Federals, on loan from Major General William T. Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee, arrived at the mouth of the Red River to be transported to Alexandria.
  • Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s naval flotilla of 60 vessels prepared to move up the Red to support the Federals already at Alexandria.
  • Major General Nathaniel P. Banks was to lead part of his Federal Army of the Gulf out of New Orleans, up Bayou Teche to Alexandria.
  • Major General Frederick Steele’s Federal Army of Arkansas was to move south from Little Rock to join Porter and Banks at the vital cotton-producing city of Shreveport.

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

The campaign immediately bogged down when A.J. Smith received word that Banks was busy setting up a Unionist Louisiana government at New Orleans and could not meet him at Alexandria until the 21st at the earliest. Smith and Porter therefore decided to begin moving up the Red River without the rest of Banks’s army.

To reach Alexandria, the Federals first had to deal with Fort DeRussy, a work garrisoned by 3,500 Confederates and 10 guns. According to Smith, “It was therefore deemed best to act against it in conjunction, the army in the rear by land and the navy by river.” The troops boarded transports and, with Porter’s gunboats in the lead, the squadron started up the Red.

The U.S.S. Eastport was assigned to “clearing away the heavy obstructions the rebels had placed in the river, and to amuse the fort until the army could land at Simmsport and get into the rear of the enemy’s works.” Porter noted that several of his largest vessels had trouble moving up the shallow waterway. A detachment of Porter’s fleet and the transports veered onto the Atchafalaya River and stopped at Simmsport (now spelled Simmesport).

A landing party from the U.S.S. Benton moved inland and drove off a small Confederate force manning an uncompleted fort on Yellow Bayou. These Confederates fled to Fort DeRussy, about 30 miles north, while A.J. Smith’s Federals debarked.

Back on the Red, Porter instructed Lieutenant Commander S.L. Phelps of the Eastport that after clearing the obstructions, “move up within a short distance of Fort DeRussy, but make no attack until I get up with the main force, though, if there is any force at DeRussy, you can amuse them by feints until the army get into their rear.” Porter warned Phelps to “take every precaution against torpedoes, and protect your men against sharpshooters.”

Meanwhile in Arkansas, Steele continued balking at orders to meet the Federals at Shreveport. After failing to persuade his superiors that southern Arkansas lacked the forage needed for his men, Steele now argued that since A.J. Smith was reinforcing Banks, “This is more than an equal for everything (Confederate General Edmund) Kirby Smith can bring against them.” Henry W. Halleck, who had recently become the Federal chief of staff, repeated his order for Steele to go to Shreveport unless otherwise directed by the new general-in-chief, Ulysses S. Grant.

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

By the 13th, Porter’s vessels had gotten through the obstructions on the Red. Porter reported that the Confederates “supposed it impassable, but our energetic sailors with hard work opened a passage in a few hours.” The Eastport and Neosho began bombarding Fort DeRussy, while A.J. Smith’s Federals began preparing for a ground assault.

When Major General John G. Walker, commanding the defenders at Fort DeRussy, learned of A.J. Smith’s approach, he notified his superior, Major General Richard Taylor at Alexandria, “It will be unsafe to linger here. I feel most solicitous for the fate of Fort DeRussy, as it must fall as soon almost as invested by the force now marching against it.”

Taylor replied, “If the force of the enemy landing at Simmsport is such as to admit of your fighting him with the least hope of success, the sooner you attack him the better… every hour that the enemy is held in check by your presence in his front or on his flank must be improved to get everything in complete readiness at Fort DeRussy.” Losing the fort “would be a great disaster, and, therefore, we must take more than ordinary hazards in fighting.”

Walker guessed which road the Federals might take to get to the fort and deployed a brigade to block them. But Smith took a different road and moved his forces across Bayou de Glaize. They moved through Marksville and stopped within a mile and a half south of DeRussy that night. Smith assigned one of his three divisions, led by Brigadier General Joseph A. Mower, to attack in the morning.

The next day, Porter’s gunboats renewed their bombardment of the fort while Mower’s division advanced. Walker moved his main force out in front of DeRussy, leaving a skeleton force of about 300 men inside. He received word that the Federal troops had given up trying to capture DeRussy and were returning to their transports. But, as Walker reported:

“Soon after daylight on the 14th, this information was proven incorrect by hearing the sound of numerous drums in the distance in the direction of Simmsport, and as the morning advanced it became apparent that the enemy in force was approaching our position.”

Walker saw that he was vastly outnumbered. He also saw that the Federals were moving toward the fort, leaving the main Confederate force on their left flank. Walker reported:

“All these considerations induced me to adopt the only course not dictated by folly or madness, and however mortifying it might be to abandon our brave companions in arms at Fort DeRussy to their fate, it became my imperative duty to do so rather than attempt assistance, which at best could delay this danger but a few hours, and without a miracle from Heaven would insure the certain destruction of my entire command.”

The Federals stormed the fort and easily captured the 300-man garrison while Walker’s 3,000 troops slipped southward; they eventually linked with the rest of Taylor’s army. As the Federals prepared to target Alexandria next, Taylor prepared to withdraw to Natchitoches, 50 miles north.

—–

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; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 384-85; 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 619-48; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 407-09; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 52-53; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 474-75; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 193; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 292; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q164

The Red River Campaign Begins

March 11, 1864 – Major General Nathaniel P. Banks and Rear Admiral David D. Porter embarked on the largest army-navy expedition ever conducted west of the Mississippi River in hopes of seizing the vital cotton crop in western Louisiana and eastern Texas.

The Lincoln administration had long urged Banks to move into Texas to confiscate the cotton harvested there and to stop the importation of supplies from Mexico. Banks’s Army of the Gulf had gained a foothold on the Texas coast last November but achieved little else. Banks would now finally do what the administration had urged since the beginning: advance toward Texas via the Red River.

The Federal high command wanted Banks to work in conjunction with both Porter’s Mississippi River Squadron and Major General Frederick Steele’s Army of Arkansas. The mission had four objectives:

  • Destroy all remaining Confederate resistance in Louisiana
  • Capture the vital cotton producing city of Shreveport and then continue west into eastern Texas
  • Confiscate as much cotton as possible, which could then be sold to starving northern markets for windfall profits
  • Form Unionist state governments in Louisiana and Arkansas according to President Abraham Lincoln’s “Ten Percent Plan”

Major General William T. Sherman, commanding the Army of the Tennessee at Vicksburg, met with Banks at New Orleans and agreed to loan him 10,000 troops under Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith. But Banks had to return them by April 15th because Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, wanted them to participate in Sherman’s drive on Atlanta in the spring.

Sherman was skeptical of Banks’s abilities, but he trusted Porter. When he returned to Vicksburg, Sherman ordered A.J. Smith to “… proceed to the mouth of the Red River and confer with Admiral Porter; confer with him and in all the expedition rely on him implicitly, as he is the approved friend of the Army of the Tennessee, and has been associated with us from the beginning…”

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

Porter, who acted independent of Banks’s command, sent gunboats to reconnoiter the Black and Ouachita rivers on the 1st. Confederate sharpshooters fired on the vessels on the Black until they were driven off by grape, canister, and shrapnel. The next morning, the flotilla passed Trinity and bombarded Harrisonburg. Confederate shore batteries responded with heavy fire, disabling the starboard engine of the U.S.S. Fort Hindman.

After silencing the batteries, the ships continued upriver to Catahoula Shoals and then turned back. The Federal crewmen seized cotton and guns before anchoring at the confluence of the Red and Mississippi rivers. The reconnaissance was successful, but Porter worried that the low level of the Red might upset the timetable. He wrote Navy Secretary Gideon Welles:

“I came down here anticipating a move on the part of the army up toward Shreveport, but as the river is lower than it has been known for years, I much fear that the combined movement can not come off without interfering with plans formed by General Grant.”

By the 9th, Porter had nearly every ship in his squadron at the mouth of the Red. The armada included 13 ironclads, 13 tinclads, two large steamers, four small paddle-wheelers, Brigadier General Alfred W. Ellet’s Marine Brigade, and various other transports and supply ships. At 60 ships and 210 guns, this was the largest flotilla ever assembled in the region. Such a large squadron would struggle to navigate the low, winding Red River, but Porter needed the ships to grab as much cotton as possible along the way.

Banks relied on Porter for success, but he also needed Steele, whose 15,000 Federals were to march from Little Rock to join the Army of the Gulf at Shreveport. Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck had urged Steele to get moving, but Steele was not optimistic about his chances for success. He wrote Halleck that he would obey orders “against my own judgment and that of the best-informed people here. The roads are most if not quite impracticable; the country is destitute of provision.”

Steele also notified Halleck about the problem of Confederate partisans organizing in northern Arkansas and southwestern Missouri: “If they should form in my rear in considerable force I should be obliged to fall back to save my depots, &c.” Steele recommended that his army simply demonstrate against Arkadelphia or Hot Springs to divert Confederate attention from Banks. Despite Steele’s objections, the expedition would proceed:

  • A.J. Smith’s Federals would move to Alexandria to join Banks’s XIX Corps under Major General William B. Franklin.
  • Banks would lead the rest of his army from New Orleans via Bayou Teche to join Smith and Franklin at Alexandria.
  • Porter’s squadron would move up the Red River to support Banks’s forces advancing along the waterway.
  • Steele’s Federals would move south from Little Rock to meet Banks and Porter at Shreveport.
  • Banks and Porter would proceed into eastern Texas while Steele held Shreveport.

The vast Confederate spy network in New Orleans quickly informed Taylor, commanding the District of Western Louisiana, of the Federal movements. Taylor directed his men to destroy all approaches to Alexandria while he established a line of supply (and possible retreat) from Alexandria to Shreveport. Taylor also used troops and impressed slaves to strengthen Fort DeRussy on the Red. The fort was garrisoned with 3,500 Confederates.

Taylor discussed strategy with his superior, General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Trans-Mississippi Department from Shreveport. Smith wanted Taylor to stay on the defensive and fall back to Shreveport if necessary, but Taylor wanted to assume the offensive and drive toward Baton Rouge, thus forcing the Federals to detour their drive up the Red.

But then Taylor received indications that Banks might turn back and instead move east toward Mobile, Alabama. He wrote E.K. Smith on the 6th, “I am more and more disposed to think that Banks will be forced to move Mobile-ward.” If so, Taylor would “throw everything forward to the Mississippi, and push mounted men (if I can concentrate enough of this arm) into the La Fourche.”

Three days later, Taylor wrote, “It can hardly be supposed that Grant will permit any forces under his command to leave the principal theater of operations, yet common sense forbids the idea that Banks would move from the (Bayou) Teche as a base with his entire force without Sherman’s co-operation.”

On the 11th, Taylor once more concluded that Banks would indeed move up the Red: “Should Banks move by the Teche and Red River, we ought to beat him, and I hope, will.” As for Sherman at Vicksburg, “I shall not believe that he will send a man this side of the Mississippi until he is actually in motion.” Taylor concluded that if Sherman did invade Louisiana, he would come from the north, via Monroe. He did not know that part of Sherman’s army under A.J. Smith was coming to reinforce Banks at Alexandria.

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 380-82, 384; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 963-64; 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 552-62, 580-600, 1324-44; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 405-08; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 51-52; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 473-74; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 722; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 192-93