Tag Archives: Red River Campaign

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

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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: The Poison Spring Engagement

April 17, 1864 – Major General Frederick Steele’s Federal Army of Arkansas ran into trouble trying to collect supplies outside Camden, Arkansas.

Maj Gen Frederick Steele | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Steele’s Federals, now holed up at Camden, were originally supposed to go to Washington, and then to the Red River to link with Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federal Army of the Gulf at Shreveport. Steele explained to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck why he went to Camden instead: “Our supplies were nearly exhausted, and so was the country. We were obliged to forage from five to 15 miles on either side of the road to keep our stock alive.”

Situated on the Ouachita River, Camden had a port where Federal steamers could deliver supplies to Steele’s exhausted, hungry troops. However, an accident had occurred between two steamers, delaying the arrival of the much-needed provisions. This threatened to starve both the soldiers and civilians in the town.

Steele responded by directing Colonel James M. Williams to seize corn stored on White Oak Creek, about 20 miles up the Prairie d’Ane-Camden road. Williams led 695 Federals, including 438 men of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers, with two guns and 198 wagons they hoped to fill. After traveling 14 miles down the road, Williams directed his men to bivouac for the night while a detachment continued the last six miles to seize the corn.

The detachment returned around midnight with full wagons. At dawn on the 18th, Williams and his men began their return to Camden. They were joined by about 500 reinforcements and two more guns, giving Williams a total of about 1,170 men and four guns.

When Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke learned of Williams’s expedition, he mobilized his 1,700 Confederate cavalry to stop him. Brigadier General Samuel Maxey’s infantry division reinforced Marmaduke, increasing the force to about 3,335 men. The Confederates left Lee Plantation and took positions on either side of the road near Poison Spring, about 10 miles from Camden. Maxey took up positions to the left of the road, while Marmaduke’s men held the right.

At 10 a.m., skirmishing began about a mile east of Williams’s main column heading back to Camden. Williams ordered his men to form a defense line, with the 1st Kansas in the center and cavalry on both flanks. The Federals opened with their artillery, but the Confederates did not respond to avoid revealing their strength.

Maxey’s Confederates advanced around 10:45 a.m., but the Federals pushed part of his line back. Marmaduke’s men rushed forward to fill the void, and both sides traded fire for nearly an hour. During this time, Williams did his best to guard the wagon train, but he was greatly outnumbered.

Suddenly, six Confederate guns opened on Williams’s rear, catching the Federals in a murderous crossfire. The survivors of the 1st Kansas fled, with some finding protection in a nearby marsh before eventually fleeing back to Camden. Fighting ended around 2 p.m. Marmaduke wanted to pursue and destroy the Federals, but Maxey, the ranking officer on the field, overruled him.

The Confederates seized all 198 wagons which, according to a soldier, were “laden with corn, bacon, stolen bed quilts, women’s and children’s clothing, hogs, geese, and all the et ceteras of unscrupulous plunder.” This enraged the Confederates and led to witnesses accusing them of killing Federal troops, particularly the black men of the 1st Kansas, after they surrendered.

Some alleged that the Choctaw Indians under Maxey’s command had taken the scalps of their victims. According to Colonel Tandy Walker, commanding the Choctaw brigade in Maxey’s division:

“… the train fell into our hands, and soon a portion of his artillery, which my troops found concealed in a thicket near the train. I feared here that the train and its contents would prove a temptation too strong for these hungry, half-clothed Choctaws, but had no trouble in pressing them forward, for there was that in front and to the left more inviting to them than food or clothing–the blood of their despised enemy. They had met and routed… the despoilers of their homes, and the murderers of their women and children.”

The Confederates asserted that the 1st Kansas suffered a large casualty percentage because they bore the brunt of most of the fighting, and many of the soldiers had refused to surrender upon demand. The Federals sustained 301 casualties, or about 26 percent of Williams’s command, as well as all four guns. The 1st Kansas suffered a 42 percent casualty rate, with 117 blacks killed and 65 wounded. The Confederates lost 114.

This was the first Confederate victory since Steele’s Federals had begun this campaign last month. It greatly boosted Confederate morale, which had been crippled by all the past defeats in Arkansas. It also prevented much-needed supplies from reaching the Federals, who remained hungry in Camden. Steele learned soon after this disaster that Banks had abandoned his drive on Shreveport, leaving him isolated in the hostile territory of southern Arkansas.

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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; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 394; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 588-90; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 1445-75; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 420-21; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 64; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 486-87

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

Red River: Porter Struggles to Withdraw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 65-66; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 391-92; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 323; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 417, 419; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 63, 66-67; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 483-84; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 193-94

The Battle of Pleasant Hill

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

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

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

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

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

Battle of Pleasant Hill | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References

Castel, Albert, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 587; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20639; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 619-20; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 391; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 1050-60, 1069-99; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 416-17; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 60-63; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 482-83; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 722; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 193; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q264