Advance to Shreveport

With this communication to the Secretary of the Navy, Rear Admiral David D. Porter foretold the crisis that would come close to destroying his squadron of gunboats two months later. Low water on the Red River in early March was an unexpected sight. Since 1855 the annual spring rise had appeared without fail. But now in 1864, while Porter waited at the mouth of the Red River for his fleet to assemble and for Major General Nathaniel P Banks's army to begin its march north from Franklin, Louisiana, the Red River's water level was causing Porter to have doubts about the upcoming campaign.

Doubts concerning the Red River Campaign were shared by other Federal officers, but for different reasons. The necessity of a thrust up the Red River in 1864 had been debated since the fall of Vicksburg the previous year. Generals Grant and Sherman, and even the Red River expedition's commander, General Banks, believed that the North's next logical military objective was to capture Mobile, Alabama. But Commanding General of the Army Henry W. Halleck and President Lincoln felt that control of Texas was urgently needed to keep Mexico from joining the Southern cause. The Red River presented the best route to Texas.

Map of the Red River campaign, showing the routes of the Union army and navy.

There was another underlying reason for the expedition, which may have changed Banks's mind. The Red River area was rumored to contain large stores of cotton critically needed by the North. Some historians feel that Banks's desire to secure this cotton influenced his decision to promote the campaign, and that the capture of cotton became all important to him. After the campaign, the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War charged that the expedition failed because Banks and Porter were overly concerned about capturing cotton. How much their attention strayed is unknown, but it is true that competition between the army and navy for cotton caused great tension during the campaign. At Alexandria soldiers were angered 'to see the navy seizing the cotton for prize on land, while they did not get any" (J.C.C.W. n.d.: 1~,74).

Whatever the real motivation for the campaign, the official Military objective was Shreveport. Once Shreveport was in Union control, Texas would lay open to invasion. To capture Shreveport, Banks's army, supported by Porter's flotilla, would drive up the Red River while another force under Major General Frederic Steele would move south from Arkansas.

Opposing the Federal attack in Louisiana was Confederate Major General Richard Taylor, who had only around 6,000 troops scattered throughout Louisiana in Monroe, Alexandria, Marksville, and on Bayou Teche. Badly outnumbered, Taylor worked to gather his forces and then waited for reinforcements from Texas so he could eventually make a stand.

Richard Taylor. Courtesy of the State Library of Louisiana.

On March 12, 1864, Porter began his move up the Red River. Within three days, he captured Fort De Russy, near Marksville, with the help of a detachment of infantry. Meanwhile, Banks's main army began its march north from Franklin, Louisiana, fighting rain and muck.

The forward units of the army reached Alexandria on March 24. Arriving as a tired yet conquering army, they had already traveled 165 muddy road miles. Still, "the colors were unfurled, the band struck up, and the men marched through the streets" with Banks watching the troops pass in review from a house veranda (Beecher 1866:298-299). Once assembled, the Federal forces numbered nearly 30,000 troops, 13 gunboats, and 60 assorted transport vessels.

Here Banks and Porter had their second warning that the Red River was not going to cooperate. It quickly became obvious that the expedition would be delayed by the low water at the rapids. Although eventually the water level rose, the expedition was forced to leave many vessels Richard Taylor. Courtesy of the State Library of Louisiana. behind. North of Alexandria, Porter's fleet consisted of only 12 gunboats and 30 transports. To carry all the supplies needed by the army, wagons had to be used to make up for the supply boats left in Alexandria. Banks was also forced to leave behind troops to protect the fleet and the town.

While they waited for the Red to rise, the soldiers and sailors had to use the water for washing and cooking. As one member of the 114th New York described it:

Naturally, the delays in Alexandria were a godsend to Confederate General Taylor. Some 5,000 cavalry reinforcements arrived from Texas to help block the Yankee advance from Alexandria. Now, despite still being outnumbered, Taylor boldly looked for an opportunity to engage Banks before they reached Shreveport. As Taylor later related in his memoirs, "My confidence of success in the impending engagement was inspired by accurate knowledge of the Federal movements, as well as the character of their commander, General Banks, whose measure had been taken in the Virginia campaigns of 1862 and since" (Taylor 1879:161).

Taylor's opportunity came when Banks reached Grand Ecore, a landing north of Natchitoches. There, Banks decided that the bulk of his land forces would approach Shreveport along a narrow road, twisting away from the Red River and passing through the villages of Pleasant Hill and Mansfield. This decision prevented Banks's army and Porter's gunboats from mutually supporting each other during their advance. The army soon became strung out for some 20 miles along the slender road Banks chose. Awaiting him near Mansfield on April 8 were Taylor's smaller but better concentrated forces. In the battle, the tired Federal troops panicked and were thrown back down the road.

A Confederate charge at the Battle of Pleasant Hill. From Harper's Weekly,May 7, 1864. Courtesy of Edwin Adams Davis.

The next day Banks was able to pull his army together. They stood against Taylor's attack at Pleasant Hill, forcing the Confederates to withdraw. But despite this success, Banks was left with a disheartened army that was quickly losing confidence in his leadership. After the retreat to Grand Ecore, one "officer in high position" even suggested putting Banks on a steamer to New Orleans (Hoffman 1877:96-97).

Retreat to Alexandria

In spite of his army's loss of courage, Banks wanted to continue the attack. But realizing that the troops were discouraged, and that General Steele was not coming down from Arkansas to support the Union attack on Shreveport, Banks's officers convinced him to fall back to Alexandria. With this turn of events, the campaign's goal of capturing Shreveport was all but forgotten. Now the main concern of Banks and Porter was to get their troops and boats out of the Red River area while keeping their forces intact.

After Porter's gunboats returned to Grand Ecore from their own advance upstream, the dispirited soldiers began their retreat. Confederate General Taylor was now in a position to do real damage to the Union expedition. Confederate cavalry constantly tormented the retreating Union forces along the road to Alexandria. Meanwhile, others ambushed the gunboats along the twisting riverbanks. The river itself resisted the Federals as the boats continually ran aground in the shallow stream. One gunboat, the Eastport, was sunk by a rebel mine, refloated, towed, run aground several times, and finally blown up by the navy, to prevent her from being captured by Taylor's rebels. Frank Church, a Marine officer aboard the tinclad Cricket, described what must have been a typical skirmish during the retreat:

The tinclad gunboat Cricket. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Eventually, the army and its naval support made their way back to Alexandria, where the rest of the Union forces waited. As the weary Yankees dragged into the town, an officer recorded in his diary:

By April 28, Banks and Porter had reassembled their forces at Alexandria. Now the low water dilemma, which had teased and threatened the fleet throughout the campaign, became 3 crisis. The water in the Red had dropped so low that portions of the rocky rapids were exposed, and at some points, the water was only 3 feet deep. Even the lightest gunboats needed at least 7 feet of water to pass. Ten of Porter's gunboats were trapped above the rapids. Unless some means were found to get them below the rapids, they would have to be destroyed like the Eastport, otherwise they would be lost to the rebels. While many officers including the expedition's formally trained engineers, were preparing for the disastrous loss of the backbone of Porter's fleet, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Bailey was proposing the solution - a dam.