The 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.