The Emblem of the Louisiana State Militia

Louisiana's Military Heritage:

     Battles, Campaigns, and Maneuvers

The State of Louisiana


 

 

The Flag of the United States of America

The Red River Campaign

(April ~ May, 1864)

The Battle Flag of the Confederate States of America

 

 

In the winter of 1863, the Union army was in the midst of planning their next move against the Confederacy.  The repulsion of Lee's army at Gettysburg and the surrenders of Vicksburg and Port Hudson had left the Southern states reeling, split east from west along the Mississippi River and with their only major invasion of the North defeated.  To forestall a possible intervention by Britain or France on the side of the Confederacy (the French had invaded Mexico earlier that summer), there was political pressure to plant the U.S. flag back on Texas soil.  So in a move designed to meet both political and strategic demands, the Red River Campaign to capture Shreveport was devised.

 

Shreveport had been serving as the capital of Louisiana's secessionist government since the fall of New Orleans and Baton Rouge in 1862.  It was the center of a thriving war-based economy, having several arsenals, foundries, saw mills, and a powder mill in the surrounding areas.  A large, mostly uncontested field army was based in its vicinity.  The city was also home to a naval construction yard and five new submarines built by the same design team responsible for the CSS H. L. HUNLEY.  The city lay just a short distance overland from eastern Texas and southern Arkansas.  Thus it

 

Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, USA

Admiral David D. Porter, USN

Major General Richard Taylor, CSN

The major players of the Red River Campaign of 1864 (L-R):  MGen. Nathaniel P. Banks in charge of the Union Army, Adm. David D. Porter in charge of the Union's Mississippi River Squadron, and MGen. Richard Taylor in command of the defense of the Red River Valley on the Confederate side.  Photos courtesy of the National Archives and Naval Historical Center (Porter).

 

could serve as a springboard for invasions in either direction.  Thousands of bales of cotton were sitting idle on docks and wharves throughout the Red River valley since the capture of New Orleans.  The general who could bring this white gold back home to the starving textile mills of New England could conceivably lock up the vote in those states in the fall presidential elections.

 

The campaign was to be a joint Army-Navy endeavor, with Major General Nathaniel P. Banks in charge of the Army and Admiral David D. Porter overseeing the Navy's gunboats.  Banks was a general with political aspirations, for which Porter had little patience.

 

The Union had already occupied several points along the Texas coastline by this time.  In spite of this, pressure from Washington in support of the capture of Shreveport forced Banks to withdraw his troops from these footholds as well as pulling 10,000 reinforcements from the recently ended siege at Vicksburg.  His use of these 10,000 men, however, came with the caveat that they were to return to their former command—the Army of the Tennessee under Major General William T. Sherman—in time to participate in the march to Atlanta, Georgia, which was then in the planning stages.  To further bolster Banks' forces, Major General Frederick Steele was to march southward with 7,000 men from Little Rock to rendezvous on the Red River south of Shreveport.

 

As early as March 02, Porter began assembling his fleet at the mouth of the Red River.  The Vicksburg forces under the command of Major General A. J. Smith embarked at Vicksburg on March 10.  Assembling on Bayou Teche, Banks' divisions marched northward toward Alexandria on March 14.  Steele was to march from Little Rock on March 24.

 

The Confederates had not been idle after the fall of New Orleans and had fortified the valley, understanding that a Union advance must eventually push upriver.  Fort DeRussy, a 100-square yard earthen redoubt with ironclad casemates located on a turn in the river, served as the only major defense of Alexandria.  It fell to Smith's men on March 14, 1864, before the fleet ever entered into the range of its guns.  Porter had encountered trouble from the start upon entering the Red as the river was unusually low for this time of year.  Sandbars and man-made obstructions dogged his progress upriver.  However, with the fall of DeRussy, he sent his fastest boats northward and a Navy detachment arrived to occupy Alexandria even as the last of the Confederate forces were disappearing upstream.  Smith's men arrived the following day on March 16 to takeover the occupation of the city.  Banks' divisions arrived in Alexandria from March 19-24.

 

Major General Richard Taylor, son of former President Zachary Taylor, commanded the Confederate forces in the area and with the fall of Fort DeRussy, he fell back from Alexandria to Natchitoches.

 

The Union push upriver was now delayed due to the rapids located at Alexandria, from which the local parish—Rapides—took its name.  Normally a hazard only during the dry season, the low water now presented problems in ascending past them.  Porter was forced to leave some of his deep-draft vessels behind and so pushed northward with Banks' forces paralleling him on the riverbank.

 

Several small skirmishes occurred as the journey upriver started, the most significant being on March 21, 1864, while Banks' columns were still filtering into Alexandria.  MGen. Taylor had sent Colonel W. G. Vincent and his regiment to hold the road north to Shreveport and keep watch on the crossing of Bayou Jean de Jean.  As such Vincent encamped on high ground at Henderson's Hill near Bayou Rapides and Cotile to watch for Banks' advance.  Upon learning this, MGen. Smith sent Union forces under Brigadier General Joseph A. Mower to take the road and the observation post.  Mower attacked during a heavy rain storm and completely surprised Vincent's camp, capturing almost the entire regiment.  As a result, Taylor lost the only cavalry unit available to him—and thus, much of his reconnaissance capability—until much later in the campaign.

 

With Union troops now advancing under the covering fire of the fleet's gunboats, Taylor found himself forced to retreat again from Natchitoches even though he was receiving reinforcements almost daily.  But fortune turned suddenly in his favor when Banks chose to leave the protection of the gunboats at Grand Ecore and move inland on the roads.  The choice was forced upon him as the road moves westward away from the river to avoid Spanish Lake.  However, it traversed wilderness at this point with few places for the marching columns to congregate or rest until their arrival at Shreveport.  And so, he chose this route as it was easier than trekking through the wetlands of the riverside.

 

Brigadier General Thomas Green—who had fought at the assault on Fort Butler near Donaldsonville almost a year earlier—arrived now from Texas with his cavalry units to support Taylor's Confederate forces.  With his reconnoitering ability restored, Taylor learned of Banks' departure from the river.  On April 08, he deployed his troops at the Sabine Crossroads at Mansfield in a clearing about a half-mile in width stretching across the road from about three-quarters of a mile and divided by a ravine.  Here, he waited as the Union forces moved slowly into the area.

 

It was well into the day before the Confederates attacked.  In the battle that followed, Banks' panicked men were routed with over 2,000 killed, wounded, or missing.  Taylor suffered losses of 1,000 men killed or wounded.  The rout took place largely because the bulk of Banks' army was never able to get into action due to the poorly arranged line of march with the troops stuck on the narrow roads leading to the battlefield.  The local geography of thick pine forests and lack of clear ground played to Taylor's advantage.

 

 

The Battle of Pleasant Hill occurred on April 09, 1864, and halted the northward advance of Union forces toward Shreveport.

A sketch of the Battle of Pleasant Hill on

April 9, 1864, by C.E.H. Bonwill as

published in Harper's Weekly.

Courtesy of the Louisiana State Archives.

 

The Federal army retreated to Pleasant Hill for the night to regroup and to prepare for another attack, even as their supply train continued to withdraw toward Grand Ecore.  As Lieutenant Colonel Richard B. Irwin, an assistant adjutant general on the staff of General Banks, would later write, "Though a good place to fight a battle, Pleasant Hill was not a position that could be held for any length of time, even if there had been an object in holding it.  It was too far even from the immediate base of supplies, and there was no water to be had save from the cisterns in the village. ... and for this reason, if for no other, it was impossible for the army to stay there an hour longer than was really necessary to cover a safe and orderly withdrawal of the train."

 

The expected follow-up attack by the Confederates occurred the next morning on April 9, 1864.  This time, however, the Union lines held and the Confederates were repulsed though with heavy casualties; approximately 1,500 men on each side.  Once again, most of the men in blue had not taken part in the battle even though they outnumbered the rebels substantially.

 

Though they had won the battle, the campaign was already doomed on two fronts.  First, Banks' men had seemingly lost faith in him as a competent commander.  He refused to believe that he had been defeated at Mansfield, insisting rather that he had retreated only for lack of drinking water.  Secondly, behind the front lines, the Confederates were even now springing a trap that would threaten to destroy Porter's fleet of gunboats.

 

Even as the Union and Confederate armies were facing off against each other at Mansfield and Pleasant Hill, the Federal's counterparts in the Navy continued upriver from Natchitoches toward their objective of Shreveport.  Intelligence reports indicated a less than warm welcome for them in the form of the ironclad CSS MISSOURI.  The submarine CSS H. L. HUNLEY had sunk the warship USS HOUSATONIC in Charleston harbor just two months prior and now five of her sisters lurked somewhere in the muddy waters ahead as did rebel "torpedoes" (mines).

 

Low water had troubled the fleet since they entered the Red River  and many of the vessels had repeatedly run aground.  Unbeknownst to them, Confederate engineers had sunk the steamer NEW FALLS CITY across the channel just south of Shreveport, allowing a sandbar to build up.  As Porter's gunboats moved upriver, the rebels blew up Hotchkiss Dam, allowing the river to enter the nineteen-mile diameter floodplain of Bayou Pierre.  The result was a significant drop in the depth of the river.

 

Porter would write in his journals that "When I arrived at Springfield Landing I found a sight that made me laugh.  It was the smartest thing I ever knew the rebels to do.  They had gotten that huge steamer, NEW FALLS CITY, across Red River, one mile above Loggy Bayou, fifteen feet of her on shore on each side, the boat broken down the middle, and a sand bar making below her.  An invitation in large letters to attend a ball in Shreveport was kindly left stuck up by the rebels, which invitation we were never able to accept."

 

With water levels falling and news of the Army's defeat at Mansfield and subsequent withdrawal, hope of getting to Shreveport was lost and the ironclads began a retreat southward toward Alexandria.  Porter went ashore at Grand Ecore where the Army had retreated after repulsing the Confederates at Pleasant Hill.  He met with Banks, who still maintained that he had won at Mansfield and had withdrawn only for lack of drinking water and still insisted on pushing toward Shreveport.  Thoroughly disgusted, Porter informed him of his inability to move his gunboats northward.  Seeing that the campaign was ruined, Banks opted to meet his orders of returning Smith's Vicksburg troops back to Sherman by May 01.  And so the retreat downriver began. 

 

Meanwhile, General Taylor did not give up hope following his defeat at Pleasant Hill.  He knew that time and the river were on his side.  As the Union gunboats moved downriver, they continued to run aground.  Repeatedly, Confederate cavalry and snipers took the boat crews under fire as they worked to refloat their vessels.  In one of these instances, a technological innovation—the periscope—was used aboard USS OSAGE to direct defensive fire against her assailants.  In another skirmish at Blair's Landing on April 12, Confederate cavalryman BGen. Thomas Green was killed while engaging Porter's gunboats from the shore.

 

Gradually, the fleet filtered into Alexandria where they discovered yet another frustrating development:  the river had dropped low enough to prevent passage through the shallows.  The larger boats had a seven-foot draft; the chutes through the rapids gauged three feet, four inches.  The Navy was trapped.

 

Enter Lieutenant Colonel Joseph P. Bailey, a former logger from Wisconsin.  An Army engineer, he had built dams to refloat grounded steamers at Port Hudson the previous summer.  He suggested building a dam to channel the flow of water over the rapids, raising the depth and allowing the gunboats a chance to get past.  Under his direction, soldiers from Maine—many of whom were former lumbermen—began felling trees in the forests along the Pineville side of the river.  Others collected bricks and stone and disassembling buildings on the Alexandria side.  The dam building became a spectacle, gathering onlookers from both the local citizenry and the Union army.  Bailey's efforts became a joke with hecklers abounding.  But gradually, the dam took shape as the Maine troops and members of the Corps d'Afrique labored while snipers from General Taylor's advance units took potshots at them.  Confederate troops could be heard shouting to Union sentries, "How's your dam building going?"  The fleet's destruction seemed assured.

 

Lieutenant Colonel Joseph P. Bailey almost single-handedly saved the fleet from disaster at the falls near Alexandria.

Lt. Colonel Joseph P.

Bailey almost single-

handedly saved the

fleet from disaster

at the falls near

Alexandria.  Photo

courtesy of the

National Archives.

 

 

 

A photograph of Bailey's Dam under construction on the Red River at Alexandria, Louisiana, in May of 1865.

A photograph of Bailey's Dam under construction on the Red River at Alexandria, Louisiana, in May of 1865.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

 

 

Bailey now sank barges between the two wings of the dam and the waters began to rise.  On May 08, the OSAGE, NEOSHO, and FORT HINDEMAN cleared the upper falls and floated to the basin behind the main dam.  Early on the morning of May 09, the barges suddenly burst free.  Porter ordered the aged LEXINGTON—the only boat with steam up—over the upper falls and through the gap.  He would later write:

 

"She steered directly for the opening in the dam, through which the water was rushing so furiously that it seemed as if nothing but destruction awaited her.  Thousands of beating hearts looked on anxious for the result.  The silence was so great as the LEXINGTON approached the dam, that a pin might almost be heard to fall.  She entered the gap with a full head of steam on, pitched down the roaring torrent, made two or three spasmodic rolls, hung for a moment on the rocks below, was then swept into the deep water by the current, and rounded-to safely into the bank.  Thirty thousand voices rose in one deafening cheer, and universal joy seemed to pervade the face of every man present."

 

 

Click Photo to view full-sized map of Bailey's Dam.

CLICK PHOTO TO VIEW FULL-SIZED MAP

OF BAILEY'S DAM.

 

The ironclad was followed immediately afterward by her three sisters nearest the dam.  Each cleared the dam with only the monitor NEOSHO suffering damage from the rocks.

 

Bailey immediately effected repairs to the dam but faced the same problem:  the barges would not be strong enough to resist the current of the river long enough to get the whole fleet through the gap.  So he constructed wing dams at the upper falls to help relieve some of the pressure and channel the river.  The hecklers in both the Army and the Navy were now silenced.  Troops threw themselves into the repairs and construction while sailors began the task of lightening the gunboats.  Cannons and guns were off-loaded and precious bales of cotton—claimed as war booty—were abandoned.  The new dams were completed on May 11.  By May 13, all of Porter's fleet had safely cleared the falls.

 

But what of MGen. Steele, who was to march southward toward Shreveport from Little Rock with 7,000 men and  join with Banks' men on the river?  As planned, he set out from Little Rock on March 24, arriving in Arkadelphia on the 28th of the month.  Leaving Arkadelphia on April 01, he continued his march, harried by Confederate troops under the command of Major General Sterling Price.  Bypassing Price north of Washington, Steele marched into Camden, Arkansas, on the Ouachita River on April 15.  Here he heard rumor of Banks' retreat from Pleasant Hill just four days earlier and so waited on authentication of this dark news.  By the time that Lieutenant General E. Kirby Smith—Taylor's immediate superior in northern Louisiana—appeared with Confederate reinforcements on April 20, Steele had already begun his withdrawal, burning the bridge over the Ouachita and gaining a head start.  The Union troops suffered a hard fight against the combined might of Generals Price and Kirby Smith during the crossing of the Saline River at Jenkin's Ferry on April 30.  By the time they returned to Little Rock on May 02, they were greatly reduced in number and material with nothing to show for the expedition and with Steele hoping to still be capable of defending Little Rock.

 

Of course by this time, Banks and Porter had returned to Alexandria and Bailey was then working on the dam in a desperate attempt to save the fleet from destruction.  With that obstacle overcome by May 13, 1864, the withdrawal continued.  Despite orders to the contrary, Alexandria was burned as Union forces departed.  Federal troops helped to battle the flames for a time until it became evident that their efforts were in vain.  Defeated in more ways than one, they fell into the line of march in the rear guard.  But the retreat from the Red River valley ran into one more hurtle at Simmesport in the form—ironically—of high water on the Atchafalaya River.  Now it was the Army that was trapped.  MGen. Taylor, who was almost begging for more troops from Kirby Smith and the rest of the Confederate hierarchy in Shreveport, continued to close in on Banks and Porter.

 

Again, Bailey came to the rescue.  Pontoon bridges could not hold up to the Atchafalaya's swift current so Bailey made a floating bridge by lashing the troop transports side by side from one bank to the other and placing planking across their bows to form a roadbed for the supply trains and artillery.  The Union forces now made good their escape having twice averted total disaster.

 

The Red River campaign was the last major Union effort to retake northern Louisiana and eastern Texas.  Long after the war was over, MGen. Richard Taylor blamed his superiors for a lack of reinforcements which might have allowed him to deal the Union a grievous blow in destroying or capturing both Banks' armies and Porter's gunboats.  Of course, LGen. Kirby Smith disagreed and various officers of the time and later historians have weighed in on the argument.

 

Many of the Union troops and naval vessels involved in the campaign went on to participate in the Battle of Mobile Bay.  Banks remained in titular command of the Department of the Gulf though the Red River campaign proved to be a great disaster him.  After the war, he would serve several terms in Congress.  Porter would eventually serve as Superintendent of the Naval Academy and became the Navy's senior officer in 1870.  Lt. Colonel Joseph Bailey retired at the rank of Brigadier General in

 

Remnants of Bailey's Dam were visible until the 1980s when the Corps of Engineers made the Red River once again navigable.

A portion of Bailey's Dam exposed by low water in August of 1984.  Photo courtesy of the Louisiana Archaeological Survey Antiquities Commission.

 

 

1865 and for his actions on the Red River was one of only fourteen men to receive the thanks of Congress.  He would later become a federal marshal and was killed by bushwhackers near Nevada, Missouri, in 1867 in the line of duty.  On the Confederate side, Taylor received the thanks of the Confederate Congress for his defense of the Red River valley.  Promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General, he was placed in command of the defenses of Mobile.  After the war, he wrote his memoirs, Destruction and Reconstruction, which is one of the most credited reports on the Civil War.

 

The remnants of Bailey's Dam would be visible during low water until the late 1980s when the Army Corps of Engineers created a series of locks and dams to make the Red River navigable once again.  With their completion, the tree dam that saved the Navy disappeared beneath the waves forever.

 


Sources used in the compilation of this article:

History of the Nineteenth Army Corps, by Richard B. Irwin.  Elliot's Book Shop Press (1985).
Louisiana:  A History, edited by Bennett H. Wall.  The Forum Press (1984).

The Louisiana Archaeological Survey Antiquities Commission.

The Naval Historical Center.
One Damn Blunder From Beginning To End:  The Red River Campaign of 1864 by Gary D. Joiner.  Scholarly Resources, Inc.  (2002).
The State of LouisianaDepartment of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism.


**Copyright 1997-2006 by Louisiana Naval War Memorial Commission**