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.
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.
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