Tag Archives: U.S.S. Eastport

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 Faces Problems

March 25, 1864 – Major General Nathaniel P. Banks assembled the largest Federal force west of the Mississippi River, but he soon ran into trouble.

Federal General Nathaniel Banks | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federal Army of the Gulf (three divisions of XIX Corps and two divisions of XIII Corps) joined forces with Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith’s 10,000 Federals from the Army of the Tennessee and Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s 60-vessel naval squadron at Alexandria. The force consisted of 27,000 men with 90 army guns and 210 naval guns. The Confederates could not hope to match its power.

Banks, commanding the army portion of the expedition, was now ready to march north and capture Shreveport, the key cotton-producing center in the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department. However, besides the delays that had already put the campaign fearfully behind schedule, Banks noticed other problems that would eventually need addressing.

First, Federal sailors were grabbing all the cotton they could find and sending it north for profit. Porter received five percent on all sales, and half the rest was distributed among the sailors. The sailors did not discriminate between Confederate-owned, Unionist-owned, or even free black-owned cotton.

Cotton bales stamped “C.S.A.” (from the Confederate army) were re-stamped “U.S.N.” Civilian bales with no branding were illicitly stamped “C.S.A.” and then “U.S.N.” Federal army troops, who were not allowed to join in the scheme, complained that “C.S.A.U.S.N.” stood for “Cotton Stealing Associate of the United States Navy.”

Second, the water levels on the Red River were falling, which made it potentially dangerous for Porter’s massive flotilla to proceed upstream. If the levels continued falling, there was a chance that the ships could be trapped in the shallows and destroyed by Confederates on shore. Banks and Porter decided to risk heading upriver anyway.

Third, Banks was required by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant to return A.J. Smith’s troops to the Army of the Tennessee by April 15, just 20 days away, whether Shreveport was captured by then or not. Not only did Banks have to hurry if he wanted to take Shreveport, but he would then be required to immediately turn east and advance on Mobile, Alabama.

Despite these issues, the Red River campaign entered a new phase when the Federals began moving northward out of Alexandria. Colonel Thomas Lucas’s cavalry held Henderson’s Hill, 20 miles north of town, and A.J. Smith’s troops occupied a nearby plantation. Banks’s next targets were Grand Ecore and Natchitoches, about halfway between Alexandria and Shreveport on the Red.

General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, was to direct troops from Major General Sterling Price’s army in Arkansas to reinforce Major General Richard Taylor’s force in Louisiana, currently at Grand Ecore. Taylor wrote E.K. Smith, “It will be perfectly practicable at the present time for General Price’s command to be transported by water to Grand Ecore. This would save 60 or 70 miles of marching.”

Taylor reported that because of Unionist “jayhawkers” in the region, “the difficulty of obtaining accurate intelligence is greatly enhanced. The whole country between this and Alexandria swarms with these outlaws, who are allied with the enemy and acting in his interests.”

Having lost his only cavalry unit at Henderson’s Hill, Taylor awaited the arrival of Texas cavalry under Brigadier General Thomas Green, who would be arriving in a few days. Taylor wrote, “I shall assume the offensive as soon as Green joins me.”

On the Red River, Federal sailors continued seizing all the cotton they could get their hands on. Crewmen from the U.S.S. Benton landed at a plantation near Fort DeRussy and seized 13 bales of cotton. The next day, the same crewmen went back and “got 18 bales from the same place, which they baled themselves, using up an old awning for the purpose.”

By the 29th, Porter was having trouble getting his vessels up Alexandria Falls, which consisted of rapids over deadly boulders. Having nobody in his squadron who ever navigated their way through this stretch, Porter later wrote, “We had no pilots of any account, and got along by main strength and nonsense.”

The army transports got through, but some of the gunboats had to be left behind. As the U.S.S. Mound City awaited a tug to pull her through the falls, “At 8:45 tug came with orders from admiral not to attempt the rapids until the wind had subsided.” When the wind died down, the Mound City proceeded, but she “Struck a shoal at 6:15 p.m. and grounded.”

One of the heaviest vessels in the squadron, the U.S.S. Eastport, was brought over the falls, according to Porter, “after a great deal of labor and two and a half days’ hard work.” It would take until April 3 to get the rest of the flotilla over the falls, which Banks later cited as the reason for his delays (even though he refused to heed warnings that the river levels were low). Porter further reported:

“It is very slow work getting over these rocks, but as yet we have met with no accidents. One hospital ship (the Woodford), belonging to the Marine Brigade, sunk on the falls by striking the rocks, but all the rest of the transports went over safely. I shall only be able to take up a part of the force I brought with me, and leave the river guarded all the way through.”

Porter soon received word that Confederates were trying to obstruct the naval advance at Loggy Bayou. He later wrote, “If one (vessel) got on a bank, another would haul him off, and there was not a vessel there that did not haul the others off three or four times before we got to Loggy Bayou–the name is significant enough without saying any more in regard to it.” Porter also noted that civilians were no help:

“The people all along were kind to us as we went up, and gave us information cheerfully whenever we asked it. Only it was curious that their information led us into all kinds of difficulties. Where they told us the deep water was, we found shoals and snags, and where we were told to go through a cut-off we found it blind. But how could these poor people know? Likely they had never been on a steamboat or on the river in their lives.”

The Eastport made it up the Red all the way to Grand Ecore, which was taken on the 30th. Taylor’s Confederates fell back to Pleasant Hill, about 40 miles northwest of Natchitoches and less than 20 miles from the Texas border. When Taylor learned that E.K. Smith still had not sent any of Price’s men to reinforce him, he sent an angry message:

“Had I conceived for an instant that such astonishing delay would ensue before reinforcements reached me, I would have fought a battle even against the heavy odds. It would have been better to lose the state after a defeat than to surrender it without a fight. The fairest and richest portion of the Confederacy is now a waste. Louisiana may well know her destiny. Her children are exiles; her labor system is destroyed. Expecting every hour to receive the promised reinforcements, I did not feel justified in hazarding a general engagement with my little army. I shall never cease to regret my error.”

Part of Green’s Texas cavalry finally arrived, but it only consisted of 250 troopers. Taylor stationed them on the north bank of the Red to harass the Federal vessels as best they could. Another 350 horsemen arrived the next day, but half were unarmed. Meanwhile, Banks put one of his Federal corps on transports, intending to reunite his forces at Natchitoches by April 2. From there, they would begin the last leg of their expedition toward Shreveport.

In Arkansas, Major General Frederick Steele’s 7,000 Federals continued southward on their mission to link with Banks at Shreveport. They arrived at Arkadelphia on the 29th after various clashes with Confederate cavalry, covering just 70 miles in six days. Steele rested his men while awaiting Brigadier General John M. Thayer’s Federals from Fort Smith. Once Thayer arrived, the Federals were to advance to the Little Missouri River.

Federals under Colonel Powell Clayton moved southward from Mount Elba and attacked a Confederate supply train at Long View on the Sabine River, capturing 35 wagons and 260 men. The next day, Clayton concentrated his Federals at Mount Elba, opening a supply line toward Camden to support Steele’s approach.

E.K. Smith needed Price to keep Steele at bay if he was going to send reinforcements to Taylor. Smith directed Price, “Retard the enemy’s advance. Operate on their communications if practicable. Time is everything with us.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20613; Davis, William C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 106-07; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 619-20; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 388-89; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 609-19, 648-77, 726-36, 1367-77, 1386-96; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 412-13; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 54-56, 63-64; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 479