Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Red River Campaign

Dates: 10 March to 22 May, 1864


Union: Major General Nathaniel Banks, overall commander of the campaign and Rear Admiral David Porter commanding naval forces.

Confederate: Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith, commander of the Confederate Department of the Trans-Mississippi and Major General Richard Taylor commanding Louisiana troops.

Prelude: Some historians still debate whether this campaign was necessary at all. There was a plan in place to send a Union army against Mobile, AL in order to support operations near Chattanooga, TN. Still there were factors that brought about a change in orders. First, US President Abraham Lincoln wanted to get Union forces into Texas. There were some successful operations that controlled the coast with the exception of Galveston, but two major attempts to control the Sabine River had ended in failure. Second, Mexico had been invaded by French forces who installed a member of the Habsburg family as Emperor of Mexico in response to unpaid debts. It was believed that Union troops on the Rio Grande River would be a better counter to the French than Confederates, as well as provide support to the rebellion led by deposed Mexican President Benito Juarez. And third, Louisiana was a divided state. The southern half was Federal controlled, including the cities of New Orleans and Baton Rouge, while the northern half was under Confederate control, with headquarters in Shreveport. It would be a help to the Union war effort if any remaining links between the Confederate West and East were severed. With this in mind, Lincoln approved a plan to capture northern Louisiana and use that as a springboard to launch an invasion into the Texas interior.

The plan was simple, send an army up the Red River with gunboat support, capture Shreveport, and then seize the cotton growing regions in Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas. This would have the added effect of crippling the already stagnant Confederate economy, dependent on cotton sales.

The force was at least formidable; Banks would be in overall command and would bring 17,000 troops. This would be supplemented by another 10,000 troops under Brigadier General Andrew Smith, which itself was detached from Major General William Sherman’s army at Vicksburg, MS. Sherman was not happy about this because this operation would use troops that were needed else ware. Completing the infantry was 15,000 under Major General Frederick Steele, who would march out of Little Rock, AR and join Banks at Shreveport. Admiral Porter would command the naval detachment of 20 vessels.

Opposing them was Smith, Taylor, and about 25,000 Confederate troops.

There was on complication, the winter was mild and the expected rise in the Red River had not occurred. Some of the naval vessels were ironclads that were not able to travel in shallow water. If the river level dropped while the flotilla was up stream, the whole force could be trapped and easy pickings for Confederate artillery. It was decided to go ahead with the mission anyway.

12 March, 1864: Porter’s flotilla departs Vicksburg with Smith’s infantry.

13 March, 1864: Federal forces reach Simsport, LA, on the Atchafalaya River.

14 March, 1864: Smith’s infantry overrun Fort de Russy, forcing the Confederate garrison to fall back to Alexandria. At the same time, Porter’s gunboats are used to destroy a dam upstream from Simsport, allowing clear sailing to Alexandria.

15 March, 1864: Porter’s flotilla arrives at Alexandria.

16 March, 1864: Taylor sees the growing situation. He only has 7000 troops available to him at the time. He decides to pull back to Natchitoches and get reinforcements. Federal troops immediately occupy Alexandria.

18 March, 1864: Taylor prepares a defensive line at the plantation of Carroll Jones, 36 miles up the Red River from Alexandria.

19 March, 1864: After several delays, Banks and some of his troops arrive in Alexandria, where he assumes overall command. Already several detachments are pushing their way up the Red river.

21 March, 1864: A Federal detachment surprises a Confederate force at Henderson’s Hill, on the Bayou Rapides. In a driving rain, the Union forces capture the 2nd Louisiana Cavalry (Taylor’s only cavalry), about 250 troops, 200 horses, and 4 cannon.

25 March, 1864: The remainder of Bank’s command arrives in Alexandria. There is still a concern over the level of the river supporting the gunboats.

27 March, 1864: Banks receives orders from the new commander of all union armies, Lieutenant General Ulysses Grant, stating that operations must be completed by 25 April because the troops were needed for the upcoming Mobile and Atlanta operations. He was also ordered to send back Smith’s troops to Vicksburg so they can rejoin Sherman. Banks considered calling off the operation, but seeing that the original orders had not been cancelled, decides to press ahead before having to send Smith’s infantry back.

28 March, 1864: Banks orders his forces to push up the Red River. Taylor is informed of this and proceeds to put up a defense against the advancing Federals.

Taylor also knows that one objective of the Federal thrust was to seize cotton. He orders cotton stockpiles burned in order to prevent them from falling into Union hands.
31 March, 1864: Banks’ troops clash with Taylor’s skirmishers near Natchitoches.

3 April, 1864: Porter’s vessels finally get past the rapids above Alexandria, the unusually low water level is still a concern.

5 April, 1864: Taylor has received reinforcements, bring his troop total to 17,000. He uses then to cover the routes to Shreveport and Texas. Banks’ troops are still advancing, but on a single road through forest with his supply wagons stretching over 20 miles. Meanwhile, Smith’s Federal force as advancing from Little Rock, hoping to join Banks at Shreveport.

8 April, 1864: Battle of Mansfield: This is where Banks meets the first serious resistance. Taylor takes advantage of the fact that Banks’ troops were too spread out. Skirmishing took place for about two hours while Taylor prepared an assault. When the Confederates launched their attack, the Federals were immediately pushed back, losing several artillery batteries and panicking the wagon train in the process. The Union division of Brigadier General William Emory holds their line lone enough for the remaining Federals to pull back. For his efforts, Banks loses 113 killed, 518 wounded, and 1541 captured. Taylor’s losses are less than 1000.

9 April, 1864: Battle of Pleasant Hill: Banks has pulled back to Pleasant Hill, realizing that he has lost any chance of capturing Shreveport. He orders his army into a defensive line as Taylor’s Confederates approach. Taylor’s assault breaks the Union line, but Banks counterattacks and retakes the line. The Confederates lose about 1200 and the Federals about 1369.

That evening, Banks came to the conclusion that he could go no further. He also remembered his orders to send Smith and his troops back to Sherman. He orders a pull back towards Grand Ecore.

Meanwhile, Kirby Smith arrives and takes a portion of Taylor’s troops north to deal with Steele’s Federals. This leaves Taylor with 5200.

11 April, 1864: Banks reaches Grand Ecore and begins to dig in. He also sends a message to New Orleans requesting reinforcements. Porter begins to sail to Grand Ecore but is hampered by the river level, which is actually falling. A few more feet and a major Union flotilla will be trapped in enemy territory.

12 April, 1864: Confederate cavalry take advantage of Porter’s predicament and assault the river transports. A battle ensued, pitting rifles against shipboard artillery. The Confederates are driven off when their commander is killed.

13 April, 1864: Porter manages to get most of his vessels to Grand Ecore.

14 April, 1864: The flotilla is assembled at Grand Ecore with the exception of USS Eastport, which struck a mine and ended up grounding. The warship will eventually be destroyed in order to prevent it falling into enemy hands (which is an irony, since Eastport was once a Confederate vessel).

21 April, 1864: Banks orders his forces to retreat to Alexandria. The lowering level of the Red River makes the effort all the more urgent.

24 April, 1864: A Confederate attempt to block Banks’ retreat at Monet’s Ferry, south of Natchitoches fails. Meanwhile, Steele’s troops, not knowing what has happened to Banks, is attacked and driven off at Camden, AR.

The repulse of Steele put the cap on the Confederate victory. Banks is left with no choice but to pull back to Alexandria.

26 April, 1864: Banks, now in Alexandria, receives orders from Grant to end his operation and pull out of the Red River region entirely. During the withdrawal to Alexandria, three Union gunboats run a gauntlet of musket and cannon fire. Porter’s flagship, USS Cricket, is heavily damaged (with Porter himself steering the vessel), and the support ship Champion No. 3 destroyed.

At this point a new predicament occurred; the level of the Red River has fallen too low for the flotilla to continue. This as Taylor’s troops are advancing on Alexandria. Banks has several detachments try to slow the Confederates, but it will be a matter of time before the entire force is captured. That is unless something can be done to raise the river level.

30 April, 1864: Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Bailey of the 4th Wisconsin also holds a position as the Chief Engineer of XIX Corps, attached to Banks’ command. He proposes that a dam be built in order to raise the river level, that way the vessels can escape. The plan is approved and work begins.

The dam is built using wooden boxes filled with rocks. The center of the dam is designed to give way, creating a channel for the Union vessels to go through. This will take several days to complete and this is happening while the Federals are still holding off Taylor.

9 May, 1864: The dam is complete. There is a short wait while the river level is raised. Then the center is collapsed, creating a rush of water that allows the flotilla to cross the rapids and reach deeper water. The retreat can continue and Bailey will receive the Medal of Honor for his efforts.

16 May, 1864: Banks’ force reaches Mansura, south of Marksville and Fort de Russy. He finds Taylor’s troops blocking his way. He orders his forces to push through the Confederate line and continue to Simsport. Taylor does not have enough troops to stop Banks so the federals manage to get through. Taylor takes up the pursuit, hoping to keep Banks from crossing the Atchafalaya River.

18 May, 1864: Taylor makes one last attempt to stop Banks from escaping, this time at Yellow Bayou, near Simsport. The attack fails with 600 lost in the process. Banks manages to arrive at Simsport.

20 May, 1864: With his troops safely at Simsport, Banks begins crossing the Atchafalaya River. At this time he detaches Smith’s troops and sends them back to Sherman at Vicksburg. Taylor has no equipment to cross the river and must break off the attack.

The Red River Campaign was a complete failure. Not only did the Federals fail to capture Shreveport, they also failed to put a dent in Confederate operations in the Trans-Mississippi. It would also take the surrender of Edmund Smith in 1865 to unite Louisiana under the Union banner.

Banks would be relieved of command following the operation. He would not receive another command until hostilities were nearly done.

Taylor was relieved of command following criticism of Edmund Smith. He would command Confederates troops at Selma, AL and would finally surrender at Mobile.

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