Events Leading Up to the Red River Campaign
By the spring of 1864, Confederate Louisiana had shriveled to the northwestern area of the state. The capital had moved to Opelousas in 1862 and then to Shreveport in the spring of 1863. At the urging of Chief-of-Staff Henry Halleck, President Abraham Lincoln approved an offensive against the remaining Confederate forces in Louisiana in the spring of 1864. Named the Red River Campaign, the offensive had many objectives, which included:
- Capturing Shreveport, which besides serving as the temporary state capital, was also the headquarters of the Confederacy’s Trans-Mississippi Department, which General Kirby Smith commanded
- Clearing Louisiana of the last remaining Confederate forces in the state
- Seizing control of the Red River and, thereby, providing a passageway to invade eastern Texas
- Denying the South supplies from areas west of the Mississippi River
- Commandeering vast quantities of cotton to supply northern mills
- Discouraging an alliance between the Confederacy and French-occupation forces in Mexico.
Despite these potential benefits, Union generals Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, and Nathaniel Banks, the man who would lead the ground forces during the operation, opposed the idea. Nonetheless, Halleck prevailed, and the campaign began in March 1864.
Halleck’s plan comprised a three-pronged assault.
- Major General Nathaniel P. Banks would march 20,000 troops from the area around New Orleans across southern Louisiana and occupy Alexandria, Louisiana near the center of the state, before moving on to Shreveport.
- Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter would ascend the Red River and join Banks at Alexandria with over thirty warships and an accompanying supply fleet. A land force of 10,000 soldiers, commanded by Brigadier-General Andrew Jackson Smith and detached from William T. Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee, would protect Dixon’s flotilla.
- After Banks and Porter joined forces and continued upriver toward Shreveport, Major General Frederick Steele would lead another 10,000 Union soldiers out of Little Rock, Arkansas, and approach Shreveport from the north or east.
The Campaign Begins
The campaign began on March 12, as Porter’s fleet entered the mouth of the Red River from the Mississippi River. Events went well for the Federals initially. On March 14, Smith’s soldiers overran Fort DeRussy and captured a Rebel garrison of approximately three hundred men. On the next day, Porter and Smith moved upriver and occupied Alexandria unopposed. Behind schedule, the forward elements of his army did not reach Alexandria until March 23. Banks, himself, did not arrive until the next day on a steamboat with cotton speculators from his home state of Massachusetts. Banks and Porter were immediately at odds, when Banks learned that, while Porter was awaiting his arrival, his sailors were busy commandeering cotton that Banks had promised to the political supporters with whom he was traveling.
Battle of Mansfield
At last united, the combined Federal forces moved upriver to Grand Ecore. On April 6, Banks left the river and, thus, the protection that Porter’s fleet offered to travel up an inland road toward Shreveport. By the time his whole force was in motion, the column of cavalry, artillery, infantry, and supplies stretched over twenty miles. As Banks’s cavalry, led by Brigadier-General Albert L. Lee, approached Sabine Cross-Roads on April 8, they encountered up to 14,000 Rebels, commanded by Major General Richard Taylor, spread out in a defensive position. Lee ordered his horsemen to dismount and requested reinforcements from Banks. Throughout the morning, Lee probed the Confederate lines, as Taylor hoped for a Union assault. When the Federals did not attack, Taylor’s men launched their own assault in the late afternoon. The Rebels collapsed both Union flanks before Northern forces stopped the Confederates at the center of the Federal lines. Battered by the Confederate attack, Banks withdrew to Pleasant Hill during the night. The Battle of Mansfield, also known as the Battle of Sabine Cross-Roads, was a decisive Confederate victory.
Battle of Pleasant Hill
With Banks in retreat, Taylor marched toward Pleasant Hill the next day hoping to destroy the Yankee army. Upon reaching his destination, Taylor rested his men for a few hours, formed his line of battle, and then attacked the Federals at 4 p.m. The assault was initially successful, as Taylor rolled up Banks’s left flank, but the Union center held. Four hours of fighting led to a stalemate, and once again, Banks withdrew during the night. While not as decisive as the Battle of Mansfield, the Battle of Pleasant Hill was another Confederate strategic victory. Banks abandoned his goal of capturing Shreveport and attempted to retrace his 150-mile journey up the Red River.
Sensing an opportunity to destroy the retreating Union army, Taylor requested reinforcements from his commanding officer, General Kirby Smith, along with permission to pursue the fleeing Yankees. Smith, however, had other concerns. Rather than sending reinforcements, Smith reassigned approximately one-half of Taylor’s army to Major General John George Walker, with orders to check Major General Frederick Steele’s Federal army, which was moving south toward Shreveport from Arkansas. Denied of his opportunity to defeat a large Union army, Taylor settled for harassing Banks for the rest of the campaign. Smith’s decision created everlasting rancor between the two Confederate generals.
Meanwhile, back on the Red River, events were also going poorly for the navy. On April 13, Porter arrived at Grand Ecore, upriver from Alexandria. Unbeknownst to Porter, the Rebels blew a dam upstream, lowering the river’s water level. After learning of Banks’s retreat, Porter withdrew from Grand Ecore on April 21 and began moving back down the river, only to discover that the water had dropped too much for him to traverse the falls at Alexandria. With the fleet in danger of being stranded, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Bailey proposed raising the water level of the river by constructing a winged dam with a spillway in the center. Bailey based his design on dams he had worked on as a logger in Wisconsin. Unable to find a better alternative, Union leaders authorized Bailey to try his plan. With thousands of men at his disposal, Bailey began construction on April 30. A little over one week later, the water had raised enough to allow Porter’s lighter boats to traverse the falls. By May 13, the entire fleet had moved out of danger.
Steele’s expedition fared no better. Beginning on April 18, Confederate forces led by Major General Sterling Price and General Kirby Smith inflicted a series of ruinous defeats on Steele. By May 3, the Union general was back in Little Rock, soundly repulsed.
Taylor continued to harass Banks as he limped back to southern Louisiana but with little effect other than to add to the mounting humiliation of the Federals. The final skirmishes took place at Mansura, Louisiana, on May 16 and at Yellow Bayou on May 18.
Outcome of the Red River Campaign
The outcome of the Red River Campaign was a federal fiasco, perhaps the biggest of the war. Besides casualty totals that topped 8,700 soldiers, the expedition siphoned men and material away from other operations, perhaps extending the war. The campaign sullied Porter’s reputation and ruined Banks’ military career Shortly after Banks returned to southern Louisiana, the U.S. War Department issued General Orders No. 192, on May 7, 1864. The order placed the Department of the Gulf under the dominion of the newly created Division of West Mississippi, commanded by Major General Edward Canby. Reduced to an administrative role, Banks would never again command troops in the field. In December 1864, Banks came under Congressional scrutiny from the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. William T. Sherman may have summarized the campaign best when he declared it “one damn blunder from beginning to end.”