Red River Campaign
March - May, 1864
Note: Tiger (an internet nickname) is a historian out of the great state of Louisiana who's specialty is the Western Theater in general and The Red River Campaign in particular. I think you will find that this is one of the better and more detailed descriptions available.
"of cotton and politics" is how historian L.H. Johnson defined the Red River Campaign of 1864. More than just a military expedition, this Union campaign was designed to accomplish two major goals: secure cotton for the northern textile mills and end any hope of French intervention through Texas. As for the first goal, unemployment was rampant in many Northern states due to so many textile mills closing for the lack of cotton. This was causing some domestic unrest and congressmen up for re-election that Fall pressured Lincoln to do something about it. Northwest Louisiana and east Texas, hereto unravished by war, was thought to be teaming with stockpiled cotton. And Lincoln thought it imperative that the Union regain control of Texas to discourage the French from making inroads. Therefore, as Major General Nathaniel P. Banks gathered his forces these goals over-shadowed any military concerns he might have had.
Serving as his chief-of-operations and commanding the 19th Corps, was Major General William B. Franklin. Both Banks and Franklin had seen action in the East and because of their lack of success, found themselves in this remote corner of the war. Banks' own Army of the Gulf was charged with covering a vast territory and because of necessary garrison duties, could only muster about 15,000 infantry, 5,000 cavalry, and a handful of batteries (maybe 40 guns) for the campaign. Banks requested and subsequently received reinforcements from Sherman's Army of the West in the form of two divisions of the 16th Corps and one from the 17th Corps under the able command of Major General A.J. Smith, about 15,000 men. But, Sherman demanded their return by May 1, as he anticipated kicking of his own little campaign for Atlanta. Also, Major General Frederick Steele was to advance his "legion" from Little Rock and meet Banks at Shreveport. Steele had 7,000 men of all three branches under his command. A brigade of marines, and a brigade of colored troops completed the land forces. All told close to 45,000 effectives. Cooperating with the army was a formidable array of ships under the command of Admiral David D. Porter. This 58-ship flotilla included 23 gunboats, which included 13 ironclads.
Banks began his march, with Franklin commanding, from a town called Franklin, Louisiana. Meanwhile, traveling aboard transports from Vicksburg, the men of A.J. Smith arrived first in hostile territory at Simmesport. Smith took his own 16th Corps troops overland and surprised and captured Fort DeRussy, taking 200 Confederate prisoners and capturing the only heavy guns available to the Southern side. This occurred on March 14, 1864 and signaled the beginning of a most interesting expedition.
The Confederates had been expecting just such an invasion for more than a year. Despite their knowledge of it they were woefully unprepared to face it. Commanding the West Louisiana Department was Major General Richard Taylor, the son of President Zachary Taylor, and who had served under Stonewall Jackson during the 1862 Valley Campaign. Taylor would fight in the Jacksonian fashion and was unconcerned as he began the campaign with barely 7,000 men under his command. Lt. General E. Kirby Smith commanded the Trans-Mississippi Dept., was Taylor's superior, and promised reinforcements. But Major General Magruder, of the East Texas Dept., was slow to send troops into Louisiana. Kirby-Smith also ordered two small divisions, barely 4,000 men, under Brigadier General Churchill to Louisiana to support Taylor.
Taylor had no choice but to fall back and all of south and then central Louisiana passed to Union control without a fight. Taylor was furious as he called on Kirby-Smith to make the necessary commitment to stand and fight. But Smith counseled Taylor to continue to withdraw toward Shreveport, thus luring Banks into a trap. Taylor had no confidence in his superior and planned to make a stand just as soon as circumstances allowed. Kirby-Smith had nearly 50,000 men that could be called on and consolidated within a two-week time period. Taylor urged just such an order be given. With those numbers under his command Taylor knew he could crush Banks and bring a major disaster to the Union war effort. But, Kirby-Smith would not make such a move and Taylor would never have more than 12,500 men to fight Banks with. By March 31st, Banks' army crawled into Natchitoches, only 65 miles from Shreveport. Taylor was at Pleasant Hill, 25 miles northwest. He still had less than 10,000 men at his disposal. It would be another week before Banks ordered his advance to continue and thus three weeks had passed, time enough to have gathered close to that 50,000-man number, and yet Taylor sat astride the road with exactly 8,800 men of all arms. Still, he planned to fight; it was just a matter of where. Heavy cavalry skirmishing had been a daily ritual since March 21st. But, on April 2nd Brigadier General Albert Lee, commanding the Federal's 5,000-man cavalry division, received a shock from 1,500 Confederates at a crossroads called Crump's Corner. Although the results were inconclusive Lee was struck by the ferocity of the attack and pronounced that Confederate resistance was stiffening and that could mean only one thing, a major battle was near. William B. Franklin scoffed at that notion, stating the Confederates would continue to fall back until they reached Shreveport. By April 6, 1864 Banks' army reached Pleasant Hill, only just abandoned by Taylor's men hours before. Another sure sign that Taylor was indeed falling back. April 7th saw more heavy cavalry fighting with two major engagements; one at Wilson's Farm and the other at Tenmile Bayou. On April 8, 1864 Lee's leading elements boldly charged a small contingent of Confederate cavalry on the Moss Plantation, 3 miles below Mansfield. The pursuit ended when Confederate infantry made their first appearance of the campaign. Here at last was Taylor's entire, though small, army drawn up and determined to give away no more ground without a fight. Albert Lee organized a defense along the crest of Honeycutt Hill and again requested infantry support. This time two brigades from Ransom's 13th Corps, under Brigadier General Landrum, were advanced to support the cavalry. At 4:30 that afternoon, apparently without orders, Brigadier General Alfred Mouton's Confederate division stepped off across the 800 yard wide field and attacked the Federals behind the rail fence. Known as "Mouton's Charge" it would prove to be one of the most gallant, bloodiest attacks of the war and also mark the beginning of a startling Confederate victory.
As Mouton's division rolled forward Taylor realized the commitment had been made and ordered a general advance of his entire line. The Texas division under Major General John Walker started their attack, and Major General John Major led dismounted Confederate cavalry around the Union right flank. Meanwhile Mouton's men, especially Brigadier General Henry Gray's "light" Louisiana brigade, were taking fierce causalities in the open field. Starting with 1,000+ men only 600 would reach the rail fence. But as Gray's survivors did they paused to return fire, entire Union regiments disappeared. The 28th La rolled up to the fence and fired point blank into the retiring 48th Ohio. This Union regiment, struck hard on both flanks, broke and fled, now the 19th Kentucky was exposed and they fell back too. The Union line was crumbling. Brigadier General Camille Polignac's Texas brigade, of Mouton's division, slammed into the apex of the Union line and the 130th Illinois suffered mass casualties. When Walker's division started over Honeycutt Hill both flanks of the Union line were turned and this started a pell mell retreat. Phase one of the Battle of Mansfield (Sabine Crossroads) went to the Confederates. A mile to the south, at the crossroads, Brigadier General Cameron had just deployed his division of infantry of the 13th Corps. They watched the stream of Federal refugees flow by and awaited the onslaught. Screaming like banshees the gray-clads came on. In ten minutes both of Cameron's flanks were overlapped and he was forced to retire. Confederate cavalry continued the pursuit and reported another line of Union infantry. This was Emory's division of the 19th Corps, some 5,800 strong, and nicely placed atop a ridge. Taylor ordered the attack to continue but three separate attempts could not dislodge the Federals from their ridge overlooking Chapman's Bayou. The Battle of Mansfield was over. In all 3,200 Federals were killed, wounded, captured or missing and right at 1,000 Confederates, almost all killed or wounded, were missing from the ranks. Taylor had his victory. The price had been high though, General Mouton had been killed, along with several other field grade officers.
The next day, April 9, 1864, Taylor was surprised to learn that Banks had retreated back to Pleasant Hill. He ordered all his forces to concentrate in front of Pleasant Hill, including Churchill's divisions. At 4PM that day Churchill opened the hostilities by hitting Benedict's New York brigade. The fighting was close and desperate and bodies piled up in a deep ravine. But the Federals were forced back and Churchill's exuberant Confederates poured into the town of Pleasant Hill. Meanwhile, Walker's Texas division had just brushed aside Shaw's brigade of Iowa troops, and the 24th Missouri, that had been hidden in the woods. Thinking another success was within reach, Taylor ordered Polignac, now commanding Mouton's division to advance up the road toward the town. And Major General Tom Green led the Confederate cavalry through rough terrain and surprised the Federals by taking the Blair's Landing Road, which Taylor had guessed would be Banks' line of retreat. Then A. J. Smith unleashed both of his 16th Corps divisions in a counter-attack that caught Churchill first, then struck Walker's Texans just emerging from the woods. Darkness would put an end to the fighting but not until each side suffered another 1,600 losses. Immediately Taylor ordered a short withdrawal to reorganize and stabilize his line. Banks' subordinates, feeling the tide had turned, urged an immediate follow-up. Instead Banks ordered a general retreat back to Natchitoches, 25 miles back up the road. A. J, Smith, in particular, was furious and demanded that Banks step down as commander. Franklin, however, supported the decision and warned Smith about making statements that might be misconstrued as mutiny. And thus, Taylor's small, battered, and weary army was handed a major victory.
Banks did retire back to Natchitoches and to the Port of Grand Ecore. When he learned 10 days later that Steele had been defeated by Sterling Price and would not move into Louisiana to support him, Banks ordered a general retreat back to Alexandria, some 50 miles to the south.
Taylor would have only 5,000 men to make the pursuit with. Kirby-Smith recalled Walker and Churchill's divisions to supposedly finish Frederick Steele's meager forces in Arkansas. That campaign would end in utter failure at Jenkin's Ferry.
The rest of the campaign, in Louisiana, would see fighting at Monette's Ferry, April 23rd, Mansura, May 16th and finally Yellow Bayou, May 18th. But Banks was able to cross the Atchafalaya River and retire to safety at Baton Rouge.
All the while Banks and his army battled the narrow roads, lack of water, and the Confederates, Porter's fleet was dealing with the Red River. Dr. Harris Beecher, regimental surgeon of the 114th New York Infantry, said, "..never before seen such a compromise of earth and water as the Red River." The river was at a 20-year low and Porter's boats constantly ran aground on sandbars. Porter could take only 6 tinclads to support his transports above Grand Ecore. His most powerful ship, the ironclad Eastport with her 11-inch guns, was too large to pass the port. Thinking no less than 4 Confederate ironclads may be waiting for him at Shreveport, Porter had deemed it essential that the Eastport accompany the fleet at all times. And that is why when he met Confederate resistance near Springfield Landing Porter halted to await the arrival of Banks' army. The next day, on April 10th, Porter saw Confederate cavalry patrols instead. He said to a staff officer (paraphrasing), "Banks has been defeated and now the enemy is looking for us." Porter was right. He turned his ships about and started back down the river. But already the Confederates had moved guns, many captured from Banks, and scores of sharpshooters to the river's edge. While passing Blair's Landing Porter's lead boat, the Hastings, received a hot welcome. The boat was struck so many times by point blank cannon fire that she careened out of control into the opposite bank. The Black Hawk, Porter's flagship, would receive so many minie-balls that Porter later claimed there wasn't a six-inch section of her sides unmarked.
Dealing with Confederate sharpshooters and shore batteries would become a daily chore for Porter's fleet. While passing Dunn's Landing two transports, a pumper, and the tinclad Julia were all destroyed. And the mighty Eastport took a torpedo and had to be scuttled to prevent her capture. But the biggest problem facing Porter was the river itself. As his fleet assembled above Alexandria they found they were trapped by the rocky falls. The water had dropped so low that the boats could no longer pass them. It appeared the entire fleet would have to suffer the same fate as the Eastport. Fortunately for Porter, and the Union war-effort, Major Joseph Bailey, proposed, then built a dam that allowed passage of the fleet. This engineering feat did a lot to preserve the Union victory.
When Banks and Porter both escaped, relatively intact, the fate of the Confederacy was sealed. This was the last major victory of the war for the South but a huge opportunity was missed. With complete victory, including the capture of a portion of the fleet and of Banks' army, Grant's victory at Vicksburg would have been reversed. This would have meant that Sherman probably would have been ordered back to Vicksburg and Atlanta would have been safe for at least another year. That is, until after Lincoln's re-election bid! Could this have changed history?
This Page last updated 02/14/02
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