Up The Red River: The Initial Union Maneuvers

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series The Red River Campaign

Map of the Red River CampaignThe Red River Campaign commenced on March 10, 1864 with the movement of Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks’ troops north from New Orleans. At the same time Maj. Gen. A.J. Smith moved his 10,000-man force down the Mississippi River to the confluence with the Red River.

Smith immediately moved his men up the Red River where they surprised and captured Fort de Russy on March 14th. Smith’s troops captured 317 Confederates and the only heavy guns available to the Confederates. Admiral Porter then moved upriver and removed the raft that was blocking passage. The way to Alexandria was open for the Union forces.

Confederate General Richard Taylor was forced to retreat, abandoning Alexandria, Louisiana, and ceding south and central Louisiana to the Union forces.

Smith’s force was the first to arrive at Alexandria on March 20th, followed by Maj. Gen. William Franklin’s advance divisions from the Army of the Gulf on March 25th. Banks arrived a day later. While he waited for Banks to arrive, Smith sent Brigadier General Joseph Mower on a successful mission to capture much of Taylor’s cavalry and his outpost upriver from Alexandria at Henderson’s Hill on March 21. Nearly 250 Confederates and a four gun artillery battery were captured without a shot being fired.

Admiral Porter and General Banks quarreled over possession of Louisiana cotton. Porter seized three hundred bales of Confederate cotton from various warehouses in Alexandria and stamped it “U.S.N. prize”, referring to the United States Navy. Porter sent his sailors into the country to search for unginned cotton. After the crop was located, it was brought to Alexandria to be ginned and baled.

The sailors also seized molasses and wool. Historian John D. Winters of Louisiana Tech University writes that Porter “took all cotton wherever he found it, cotton belonging to the Confederate government, cotton belonging to the ‘rebels,’ and cotton belonging to ‘loyal’ citizens.”

“Banks was furious with Porter when he learned that the admiral was scouring the interior for cotton. Since he had no authority to stop Porter’s speculative activities, Banks could only try to beat him to the remaining cotton. Army wagons were sent out in large numbers to collect the cotton. Thousands of bales were brought in by the troops and stored for future shipment. Jealous of the abundant transportation facilities of the army, unprincipled navy men stole army wagons and teams at night, repainted the wagons, and branded the mules with navy initials, and dove deep in the country in search of cotton. . . . “

Upon his arrival Banks found a message from the new General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant waiting for him. Grant stated that it was “important that Shreveport be taken as soon as possible” because A.J. Smith’s command must be returned to Sherman by the middle of April “even if it leads to the abandonment of the main object of your expedition.”

While the Confederates had some 80,000 men under the command of General Edmund Kirby Smith, Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor would never have more than 18,500 in any one fight during the entire campaign.

By March 31st, the Union forces were 65 miles south of Shreveport, the Louisiana state capital. Heavy rains had delayed their advance for about a week. At the same time, Porter’s flotilla was delayed at the falls upriver from Alexandria by a combination of mines and low water.

Taylor had stationed his defenders about 25 miles northwest of the Union army with about 18,500 men and awaited the Union advance. From March 21st on, there had been constant skirmishing between cavalry forces of the two armies. On April 2, Brig. Gen. Albert Lindley Lee‘s division of Union cavalry collided with 1,500 arriving Confederate Texas cavalrymen. These Confederates would continue to resist any Union advance. The two forces were gathering for the first major battle of the campaign.


The Port Hudson Campaign Plan

This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series The Port Hudson Campaign

The Port Hudson 

Campaign Plan

There was another Confederate fortress on the Mississippi River that was blocking Union access to the Gulf from the north: Port Hudson, Louisiana. The original campaign plan for operations along the river called for a linking up of forces from Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks’ Army of the Gulf and Maj. Gen. James McPherson’s Corps of the Army of the Tennessee.

Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, the general-in-chief of the Union armies had conceived of the plan and it looked good on paper but it didn’t take into account the terrain, the opposing forces or the personalities of the two commanding generals: Banks and Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

Nathaniel Banks was a “political general” who was one of the initial major generals of volunteers appointed by Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln had done so over the objections of many of the West Point-trained officers who saw Banks as an untrained politician. Banks brought political benefits to the administration, including the ability to attract recruits and money for the Federal cause.

Banks had started in political life as a Democrat, having been elected to the Massachusetts legislature in 1849. In 1851 he was elected speaker of the lower house, followed by the presidency of the state Constitutional Convention of 1853. In the same year, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives as a coalition candidate of Democrats and Free-Soilers. In 1854, he was reelected as a Know Nothing.

He was elected Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives by a coalition of men from several parties opposed to slavery’s spread. This has been called the first national victory of the Republican party. He gave antislavery men important posts in Congress for the first time, and cooperated with investigations of both the Kansas conflict and the caning of Senator Charles Sumner.

Re-elected in 1856 as a Republican, he resigned his seat in December 1857, and was governor of Massachusetts from 1858 to 1860, during a period of government contraction forced by the depression of those years.

Before his appointment to replace another Massachusetts, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, as the commander of the Department of the Gulf, Banks had held different positions in Maryland and the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Banks was one of Stonewall Jackson’s opponents during his famous Valley campaign.

Arriving in December of 1862, Banks took command of the Union forces in southern Louisiana with headquarters in New Orleans. In the early spring of 1863, Banks was ordered up the Mississippi River to link up with Grant’s forces and take part in the reduction of Vicksburg.

On May 7, 1863 Banks and two divisions of the Army of the Gulf march into Alexandria, Louisiana after an offensive through south-central Louisiana. His forces had defeated forces led by Confederate Maj. Gens. Richard Taylor and Edmund Kirby Smith. Three engagements had taken place along the Bayou Teche at Fort Bisland, Irish Bend and Vermillion Bayou. All of them were Union victories.

Grant had one problem with Banks that could only be solved by avoiding a link up with him: Banks outranked him. During the American Civil War, generals were extremely conscious of their dates of seniority and senior generals would routinely take over command of another officer’s force if he outranked him. Realizing that Banks would outrank him, Grant decided to move away from the river and put as much distance between Banks and himself to avoid any confrontation.

Click map to enlarge.

Banks’ plan was relatively simple. Once McPherson’s Corps arrived, he would move down the Red River on the transportation he had brought with him and overwhelm Port Hudson. After what he anticipated to be a brief operation, Banks would then proceed up the Mississippi and join Grant at Vicksburg.

When Banks arrived at Alexandria, he was surprised to instead find a flotilla of gunboats from the Mississippi Squadron. He was met by Rear Admiral David Porter who had steamed down the Mississippi River from Bruinsburg after ferrying Grant’s troops across to the east bank. Porter informed Banks that McPherson would not be joining him. Grant’s army was driving inland away from Banks.

Civil War Port HudsonStunned by this turn of events, he generated a number of dispatches to Grant, imploring him to either join him or at least send a substantial force to reinforce him. All of this was to no avail. Grant was on his way to Jackson and ultimately back to Vicksburg.

Banks was in a quandary over his next move. He could continue up the Rid River to Shreveport but another Trans-Mississippi adventure might cause problems with Halleck and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. He could return to New Orleans but this would be seen as a retreat. He would be back at his starting point with nothing to show for the effort.

Instead, Banks decided that if Grant would not come to him, he would go to Grant. Using the various naval assets of Rear Admirals David Farragut, David Porter and his own, he planned to move his command to Grand Gulf and from there to wherever Grant was located.

Returning his immense train of commandeered vehicles which was trailed by thousands of freed slaves to Brashear City, he headed down the south side of the Red River from May 14th to May 17th. Reaching Simmesport at the head of the Atchafalaya River, Banks had revised his plan once again. He was concerned about leaving New Orleans undefended while his Army of the Gulf was so far away. He realized that he would have to move against Port Hudson alone.

He had finally occurred to Henry Halleck that the two Union armies were on opposite sides of the river and were in fact moving away from each other. He rebuked Banks, unfairly it would seem, for not joining Grant. “I assure you that the Government is exceedingly disappointed that you and General Grant are not acting in conjunction.” 

Committed to a campaign against Port Hudson, Banks moved forward with his plan.