The American Civil War Overview

CHAPTER XII
THE TRANS-MISSISSIPPI: THE RED RIVER CAMPAIGN

       The fall of Port Hudson in July 1863 eliminated Confederate control of the lower Mississippi River and freed the forces of the newly created Department of the Gulf for employment elsewhere. Major General Nathaniel Banks, the commander of this department, was in agreement with Grant and Admiral Farragut that an expedition against Mobile, Alabama would be the most effective means of rendering support to the proposed operations against Bragg at Chattanooga, which was the highest priority of the Federal forces in the Western Theater.
       The authorities in Washington however, had a somewhat different view of the situation. General Halleck, probably at Lincoln's insistence, directed Banks to move his forces against the Confederates in Texas. There were undoubtedly more political considerations than military in this redirection. It was felt to be very important that a Federal presence be re-established in Confederate Texas.
       A Federal attempt to move against Sabine Pass at the mouth of the Sabine River in September 1863 ended in dismal failure. A second attempt to reach the Sabine River by an overland march was terminated because of anticipated supply difficulties in hostile territory. Banks fell back upon naval operations to reduce the Texas Gulf Coast ports. Between November and December 1863, Brownsville, Corpus Christi, and Fort Esperanza were occupied by Federal forces. By the beginning of 1864, the only major port in Texas still in Confederate hands was Galveston. In early January, Banks began operations against it also.
       Hardly had the Galveston operations begun than Halleck directed Banks to resume the delayed Red River operation against Shreveport, Louisiana. This expedition was to be of a larger scale than the earlier ones, with Banks to receive support from Steele's Federal forces in Arkansas, detachments of Sherman's command in Mississippi, and gunboat support from Farragut under the command of Admiral Porter.
       Except for a few weeks in late March and April, when spring rains swell its depth, the Red River was generally non-navigable above Alexandria, Louisiana. Bearing this in mind, Banks planned the operation to get underway by mid-March. However, the Federal plan suffered from serious defects. 10,000 troops from Sherman, to be transported by Porter's gunboats, were to rendezvous with Banks' 17,000 at Alexandria, some 100 miles deep into Confederate controlled territory. Even worse, the junction with Steele's 15,000 troops from Arkansas was to occur at Shreveport, another 150 miles behind Confederate lines. Although Banks was not happy with the situation, and unable to convince his superiors of the pitfalls that might lie ahead, he resolved to try and carry out his orders to the best of his ability.
       The overall Confederate commander for the Trans-Mississippi Theater was General Edmund Kirby Smith. Smith could muster about 25,000 men to oppose the Federal operations. Major General Richard Taylor, son of former President Zachary Taylor, was placed in command of Confederate field forces.
       Sherman's detachment, under the command of Major General A. J. Smith, were the first to arrive via Porter's gunboats at Alexandria, Louisiana on March 18. Banks' command arrived a week later. On March 27, Banks received new orders from General Grant. Grant required that the operations against Shreveport must be concluded by April 25 because he would need all the troops for operations against Atlanta and Mobile by early May. Based on this new development, Banks considered calling off the campaign. However, he was optimistic that the Confederates would not be able to concentrate in time and even if they were able to do so, that they might choose not to contest the Federal occupation of Shreveport.
       By April 3, the Red River had risen enough to allow Banks' transports and thirteen of the smaller gunboats to pass the rapids above Alexandria. The Confederates were still not fully concentrated and were gathered at a plantation about forty miles northwest of the city. Taylor awaited the arrival of two divisions from Sterling Price's forces, under the command of Brigadier General Thomas Churchill before moving against the Federals.
       Leaving about 5,000 men to provide security for his line of communications, Banks set off on April 6 with a force of about 24,000 men toward Mansfield. On April 8, his advance elements encountered Taylor's army of about 16,000 occupying an advantageous position on the edge of a small clearing about two miles south of Mansfield. The battle did not begin in earnest until about 4:00 p.m.    The Federal troops were sent forward to assault the Confederate positions without proper support for their flanks. This error, in combination with some poor tactical decisions on the part of the Federal commanders, allowed the Southern forces to put the Federals to flight after two hours of bitter fighting. Under the counterattack of Taylor's best troops, the Louisiana division of Alfred Mouton, the Federal divisions of Landram and Cameron fell apart. Only the timely arrival of Emory's division saved the Federal forces from complete disaster.
       Banks withdrew during the night to Pleasant Hill, about nine miles southwest of the Confederates. Emory's division was deployed to the front while A. J. Smith's fresh troops formed a second line and reserve. The troops of Landram and Cameron, who had taken such a beating, were sent to the rear to guard the wagons and would take no part in the upcoming fight.
       Taylor wanted desperately to complete the destruction of the Federal army. He put his tired troops on the road in pursuit and by 1:00 p.m. on April 9 had reached the vicinity of Pleasant Hill. The Southern forces were allowed to rest for about two hours while Taylor devised a plan of attack. Taylor deployed Churchill's two divisions, unengaged the previous day but still very tired from two day's hard marching, on his right flank with orders to assault the Federal left. Walker's and Mouton's divisions were deployed in the center intending to pin the Union defenders in place. Meanwhile, the Confederate cavalry was to move around the Federal right and place themselves in a position to cut off Banks' expected retreat route.
       Unfortunately for Taylor, Churchill's line of assault did not go deep enough against the Federal flank, leaving his own flank exposed to a counterattack by the Union reserve. The Confederate assault was repulsed with heavy loss. The following morning found Banks again having retreated. Kirby Smith reached the battlefield and left Taylor with Mouton's division and the cavalry (about 5,200 troops) to continue to harass Banks withdrawal while taking the remainder to move against Steele in Arkansas. Banks, by this time, had abandoned his attempt to capture Shreveport since he could now expect no help from Steele and he must soon return Sherman's troops.
       After several skirmishes and minor engagements between Banks' forces, Porter's fleet and Taylor's pursuing troops, the Federals finally escaped back down the Red River. Sherman's troops were embarked for Vicksburg on May 21-22, and on May 26, the remainder of Banks' command reached Donaldsonville, Louisiana. The Red River Campaign had been a complete failure for the Federals. Banks was relieved of command and Kirby Smith fired Taylor as a result of some angry correspondence between the two Confederate commanders.

This Page last updated 11/22/03

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CHAPTER XIII, The Eastern Theater: Lee and Meade