A Union Catastrophe by the Name of Red River

While the spring of 1864 marked the launch of a Union overland campaign in Virginia, it also signified a Federal disaster in the West. For three long months, the North had tried to take control of the Red River in an attempt that would go down in history books as the Red River Campaign. Although the conflict pitted 30,000 Northern troops against an enemy at times only one third that size, the campaign was an utter failure. So why did the North want to occupy the Red River area?

The Union was in desperate need of one thing: cotton. Although many Union strategists in Washington believed that taking control of the Red River and occupying east Texas would successfully interrupt Confederate supply lines, this was not main goal of the campaign. Before the war began, the North enjoyed a blossoming textile industry – an industry completely dependent upon the South for raw materials. By 1863, the North’s supply of cotton was almost nonexistent. To fix this problem, Union General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck devised a plan to capture Shreveport, a city in Louisiana located on the Red River.


General In Chief Henry Halleck
General In Chief Henry Halleck

Halleck’s idea was approved by January of the following year (1864). Using both Navy and Army forces, he planned to follow the river through Louisiana and push into east Texas. Major General Nathaniel P. Banks would take 20,000 troops from New Orleans to Alexandria, meeting up with 15,000 troops from Sherman’s Division (led by Officer A. J. Smith). Finally, Navy Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter was ordered to assist Banks with his fleet of gunboats already located on the Red River. As soon as the South noticed these movements taking place, General E. Kirby Smith began preparations. Although the Confederates didn’t know exactly what their enemies were up to, Smith decided to move many of his forces to the Shreveport area.

Banks set out from New Orleans on March 10, despite several warnings from others in the area, that the whole plan would fail. Four days after an all-night march and before meeting up with Banks, A.J. Smith’s troops encountered and surprised Confederate defenses at Fort de Russy. They were successful in capturing the fort and took just over 300 prisoners. Smith’s victory made it possible for Admiral Porter to continue upriver and forced Confederate Lt. General Taylor to abandon Alexandria, leaving the town open for capture when Smith arrived on March 20. Unfortunately this was to be the last success of Halleck’s plan.

A. J. Smith was scheduled to combine forces with Union Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin and Banks, but when he arrived in Alexandria he found himself alone for two days. This delay set the stage for a strained relationship between Banks and his subordinates for the remainder of the campaign. By the end of the month, Banks and his men were within 70 miles of Shreveport. This time, Franklin and Porter were delayed in meeting up with Banks. Heavy rainfall had slowed Franklin’s men, while Porter was forced to navigate through a river peppered with mines. Porter had also halted his progress to gather cotton, an activity that

Admiral David Dixon Porter
Admiral David Dixon Porter

wasted precious time. As the Union troops approached Shreveport, Taylor employed both army and cavalry to slow them down with guerrilla warfare. Taylor finally launched a coordinated attack on April 8 just outside Mansfield. Taylor saw a line of Northern soldiers cowering behind a fence and assumed that the Union army was in a state of disorder. He ordered Brigadier General Alfred Mouton to attack the enemy’s right flank. Simultaneously, Taylor moved the remainder of his forces against the left flank while sending his cavalry around to the Union’s rear. The Federals found themselves surrounded. Banks sent word for reinforcements, but it was too late. The Union line collapsed and the Confederates pursued the Union troops for a few miles. Luckily, the Northern troops were able to escape and regroup when their enemy paused to ransack a supply wagon. Despite a new formation, Banks was once again defeated. He withdrew his men to the town of Pleasant Hill and there hoped to reunite with A.J. Smith and his men.

The aftermath of the battle was disheartening: the Union had lost over 2,000 men, 20 cannons, and nearly 150 wagons. The Confederates lost about 1,000 men including Alfred Mouton (shot during the initial charge). It was not until the following morning that Taylor realized Banks had retreated. Taylor quickly followed with Green’s cavalry and encountered Banks just outside Pleasant Hill. Just 24 hours after launching his attack near Mansfield, Taylor launched a second attack led by Brigadier General Thomas J. Churchill and his infantry. Although Taylor ordered Churchill to attack the Union flank, he had miscalculated their position and sent Churchill directly into the enemy’s center. His mistake also caused his cavalry to suffer heavy fire. Even so, Churchill succeeded in collapsing the Union’s center. Unfortunately for Churchill, the Northern troops were organized in a U-shape. This meant that Churchill was surrounded. It was not an easy win, but the Union was able to push the Confederates out of the Pleasant Hill area. The battle saw heavy losses for both sides. Although the Battle of Pleasant Hill was technically a Union victory, the South was able to regain the land when Banks left to seek water for his men and food for his horses.

A witness account recorded in Gary Joiner’s book The Red River Campaign proves that Banks had been warned against using the road from Pleasant Hill to Mansfield as it would put his army too far from the river. Porter also begged Banks not to use a route so far from Navy protection. Joiner quotes a letter from Porter to Sherman in which Porter describes an alternate route:

It struck me very forcibly that this would have been the route for the army, where they could have traveled without all that immense train, the country supporting them as they proceeded along. The roads are good, wide fields on all sides, a river protecting the right flank of the army and gunboats in company.”

Apparently Banks was not keen on taking advice. Although his actions were designed to

Union Major General Nathaniel P. Banks
Union Major General Nathaniel P. Banks

take him to Shreveport as quickly as possible, the losses he suffered destroyed all hope of a successful venture. The remainder of the Red River Campaign was fairly uneventful. The two armies continued to fight in small battles across Louisiana as the Union Army and Navy retreated. Camaraderie between Union generals dissolved as they realized the campaign was doomed. The Confederates diverted the water flow of the already-low Red River, making it nearly impossible for Porter to navigate with his gunboats and ironclads. Porter claimed a small victory in a skirmish near Blair’s landing on April 12 when Confederate cavalry General Green was decapitated by a naval shell.

Banks and his men reached Grand Ecore, LA and received orders from Grant to continue to New Orleans by way of Alexandria. Taylor was in quick pursuit with 5,000 men as Banks headed out of Grand Ecore. Banks won a small victory at the Battle of Monett’s Ferry during his retreat; however, the win did not help them get back on track with the campaign. Union General John McClernand arrived in Alexandria with reinforcements, but at this point could do little to help. Meanwhile, the Union’s already-tattered command system collapsed further and Porter continued to struggle through the river.

When the Union eventually pulled out of Alexandria, the town went up in flames. The reason for the fire remains unknown, especially considering the fact that the Confederates had already burned most of the cotton in the area to prevent the Union from seizing it. Despite his best efforts, Taylor failed to prevent the Federals’ escape. He placed the blame on Kirby Smith, claiming he failed to provide needed support. By mid-May the Union troops were en route to Mississippi. A skirmish took place near Mansura, LA with minimal damage to either

Historical Marker for the Battle of Yellow Bayou, the last engagement of the Red River Campaign
Historical Marker for the Battle of Yellow Bayou, the last engagement of the Red River Campaign

party. The final conflict of the campaign took place at Yellow Bayou on May 18. Both armies were forced to retreat when the ground caught fire, resulting in no victories and many casualties. This pathetic fight brought an end to the Red River Campaign and Banks returned a defeated man.

The successful thwart of the Red River Campaign did not greatly benefit the South. Many agree that the Union should have focused its efforts on capturing Mobile, Alabama. In addition to lengthening the brutal war, the Red River Campaign ended Banks’s military career and any hopes he may have had for a later political role. The campaign caused the South to suffer important casualties including commanders Mouton and Green. Taylor was convinced that Smith’s decision to split the army after the Battle of Pleasant Hill had ruined their only chance to capture the Union fleet while it sat idle in low waters. Littered with missed opportunities and blunders on both sides, General Sherman later quoted as described the campaign as “one damn blunder from beginning to end.” 


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