The Red River Campaign - The Retreat
by
Tiger

       Following the fight at Pleasant Hill General Banks ordered a general retreat back to Natchitoches and Grand Ecore, then abandoned Natchitoches as he didn't want his lines stretching the 5 mile distance. From April 10th through the 21st Banks, his army, Porter, and his fleet, sat bottled up by 2,000 Confederates under the command of Brigadier General Hamilton Bee, the brother of Bernard Bee who had been responsible for Jackson's nickname, "Stonewall." When Banks received confirmation of Steele's setbacks in Arkansas he made preparations for a further retreat to Alexandria. Thinking Taylor had at least 25,000 men under his command, Banks' orders called for a sudden and quick withdrawal designed to prevent Taylor from bringing on another major battle. Banks ordered A.J. Smith's 16th Corps to lead the way to Natchitoches and secure the town and the river crossing there. Supported by cavalry, Smith made a swift movement and it was all Bee could do to get his small force out of the way. A courier met Bee with orders from Taylor to move to the high bluffs overlooking the ford at Monette's Ferry and dig in and wait. Taylor received some reinforcements from Texas in the form of William Steele's 700-man cavalry brigade. This Steele should not be confused with the Union general operating in Arkansas. The 16th Corps took up positions around the town and Franklin's own 19th Corps moved behind the cavalry van across Cane River and started the retreat. The 13th Corps followed as did the 16th Corps, firing the town as they departed. But Steele's men, after a brief skirmish, helped the town's people fight the blaze and only three houses were lost.
       Late on April 22nd the 19th Corps reached Monette's, a 32 mile march, and were disheartened by the show of force by the Confederates on the bluff. The 16th Corps, in the rear, camped at the town of Cloutierville, 6 miles back up the road. Early on April 23rd, perhaps the single most important day of the campaign, fighting erupted at both ends. Federal cavalry probed Bee's positions on the bluffs and Confederate cavalry, now under the command of Major General John Wharton, formerly of the Army of Tennessee, attacked Smith's Federals around Cloutierville. Fierce fighting started at Magnolia Plantation and flowed to the town itself. And a total of 51 guns from the two sides exchanged pleasantries for four hours. When Wharton's Confederates threatened to capture the road and cut off Smith's corps, he ordered a withdrawal, again firing the town as they left. Yet again, Southern troopers stopped to fight fire and did save most of the town. Meanwhile, ahead at the Ferry, reports brought in to Federal HQ were alarming. Banks was convinced that over 8,000 enemy troops occupied the heights to his front, more were reported at the confluence of the Cane and Red rivers. This was General Liddel's division and Caudel's detachment from Polignac's division. And, Banks was convinced that Taylor was about to arrive with 25,000 more. When Smith reported he was forced to retreat from Cloutierville by heretofore unaccounted for Confederate cavalry, Steele's brigade, and that General Wharton, of the Army of Tennessee, had been identified as in command, Banks assumed that somehow Johnston had sent reinforcements all the way from Georgia! General Banks discussed the possibility of surrendering to avoid the useless waste of life. His subordinates begged for a chance to break out of this trap and Banks agreed.
       Brigadier General William Dwight led his brigade up the road, across an open field, straight at the bluffs and received a warm welcome. Brigadier General James McMillan advanced his brigade in support. It was obvious a frontal attack was suicidal so they fell back. Banks again asked about surrendering the army, but was convinced to make one more try at a break out. This time while Dwight and McMillan demonstrated, Brigadier General Henry Birge led his own brigade, Fessenden's New York brigade, and a division of the 13th Corps, under Cameron, on a wide flanking move to the west. Contesting this formidable force was Colonel George Baylor's Arizona Brigade of cavalry. Skirmishing fiercely Baylor fell back. A battalion of Texas cavalry under Colonel Isham Chisum arrived to lengthen Baylor's line but still the Federals came on. Fearing his line of retreat would be cut off Bee suddenly ordered a general withdrawal from the heights. And just like that Taylor's trap was opened. The Federals threw a pontoon bridge across the ford and started crossing the Cane River. Taylor was furious with Bee saying.."he had only to hold on and we had the means to make Banks unhappy come the morrow."
       Reaching Alexandria two days later, Banks was reinforced by Grover's division of the 19th Corps, and McClernand's division from Texas. This Union army was never larger and any hope of stealing a victory was gone for Taylor's Confederates. The best opportunity had lied at Monette's and it had been squandered.
       After the fleet passed the rocky rapids, thanks to Bailey's dam, the army resumed its retreat as well. The ever-determined Taylor, still hoping for a miracle, boldly drew his tiny army up at Mansura to make a stand. Begging for chance to redeem itself this Army of the Gulf and the detachments from the Army of the West, formed massive battle lines on the open prairie and advanced on Mansura. With bands playing and banners snapping in the breeze over 35,000 men advanced on Taylor's meager 7,000. An intense artillery dual ensued but Taylor was compelled to give ground in the face of such numbers. One Iowa soldier wrote that the affair had been "grand and splendid, like a dress parade."
       Taylor allowed Banks to pass then swung in behind him and continued the pursuit. On May 18th, at Yellow Bayou, General Joseph Mower led his division, and a brigade of cavalry, out to engage Taylor. Not shying away from a fight Taylor attacked and a fierce struggle erupted in the sugarcane fields. Mower was pushed back but dug in along the bayou and dealt Taylor's Confederates a series of blows. Well after dark the fighting finally ceased, but not until 350 Federals and 650 Confederates had breathed their last. It had been a bloody ending to a failed campaign. Banks' army crossed the Atchafalaya River and marched to safety at Baton Rouge.

       Banks would face a congressional hearing in January, 1865 on his conduct in the handling of this botched campaign. Taylor, who blamed Kirby-Smith for Banks and Porter's escape, resigned from the Trans-Mississippi and offered his services to Lee in the east. Taylor would be promoted to lieutenant general and given command of the department of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. He did what he could to the end of the war, surrendering his department on May 8, 1865 at Meridian. Kirby-Smith's Trans-Mississippi would be the last to surrender, doing so on May 26th.

This Page last updated 02/07/02

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