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[494]

Chapter 41: the Red River expedition, under Major-General N. P. Banks, assisted by the Navy under Rear-Admiral David D. Porter.

  • The origin, objects and plan of the expedition.
  • -- the naval vessels and troops assemble at the mouth of the Red River. -- removal of obstructions. -- capture of the Confederate camp at Simmsport. -- attack and capture of Fort de Russy. -- arrival of the fleet and troops at Alexandria. -- up the falls. -- the abominable cotton traffic. -- General A. J. Smith's “ragged guerillas.” -- bridge of cotton. -- advance on Shreveport. -- Banks meets a reverse near Pleasant Hill. -- battle at Sabine cross Roads. -- Confederates make good use of Banks' cannon and Army wagons. -- battle at Pleasant Hill. -- Banks victorious, but orders a retreat to Grand Ecore. -- retreat of the fleet impeded. -- engagement between the Osage and Lexington and 2,500 Confederates under General Green. -- reports of Lieutenant -- Commander Selfridge and General Kilby Smith. -- the Army and Navy at Grand Ecore. -- minor engagements. -- battle at Cane River. -- the Eastport blown up. -- the attack on the little Cricket. -- fearful scene of carnage. -- the Juliet disabled. -- batteries engaged along the River. -- dissatisfaction of the Army. -- the squadron in a bad position.


No official account detailing the particulars of this unfortunate expedition was forwarded by General Banks until long after the expedition failed.

A question has been standing for many years as to who originated it, and this has been settled by the highest authority. General Grant, in his Memoirs, says that the expedition originated with General Halleck, who urged General Banks, with all his authority, to undertake it. This is, without doubt, the origin of the affair.

After the fall of Vicksburg and Port Hudson, General Sherman proposed to Admiral Porter an expedition to Shreveport, La., via Red River; but on careful inquiry it was found that the water was unusually low for the season of the year, and therefore the expediency of a movement was doubted. But, as General Sherman was anxious to undertake the expedition. and promised to be in Natchez in the latter part of February, 1864, Admiral Porter ordered the following vessels to be ready near the mouth of Red River to accompany the Army whenever the latter should commence its march: the Essex, Benton, Lafayette, Choctaw, Chillicothe. Ozark, Louisville, Carondelet. Eastport, Pittsburg, Mound City, Osage, Neosho, Ouichita, Fort Hindman. Lexington, Cricket, Gazelle. Juliet, and Black Hawk (flagship). This squadron comprised the most formidable part of the Mississippi fleet, only the lighter vessels being left to protect the Mississippi, the Ohio, and their tributaries; for, supposing that the Army would send a large force into the interior of Louisiana, Admiral Porter determined there should be no want of floating batteries for the troops to fall back on in case of disaster.

The Admiral had written to General Sherman that he did not think the time propitious for ascending Red River, and [495] when he arrived in Natchez he found that Sherman had gone to New Orleans to see General Banks. The impression was that he went there to obtain Banks' co-operation in the great raid through the South, which Sherman afterwards so successfully accomplished without Banks' assistance.

By looking at the map, it will be readily seen how valuable a position Mobile would have been at such a time if held by the Union troops, its railroad system connecting with all the Southern roads, by which Sherman could have been supplied with provisions and stores, as well as reinforcements of men in case of necessity, while the straggling forces of the enemy between him and the Gulf would have been cut off. It would strike the military observer that to insure complete success Mobile should have been captured at the time Sherman started on his raid, which would have placed the entire country between him and the sea at the disposal of the Federal forces.

The Black Hawk, Admiral Porter's flag-ship.

Fortunately, as matters turned out, General Sherman was able to overcome all obstacles that impeded his progress, and to subsist his army on the country through which he passed.

At the time Sherman went to New Orleans to see General Banks, the latter had under his command at least 50,000 men, and could have easily captured Mobile, then garrisoned by only about 10,000 troops; but this place, so easy of access and so easily captured from the land side, was left unnoticed until the latter part of the war. Its capture was then undertaken by Rear-Admiral Thatcher and General Canby. The result was the loss of several vessels blown up by torpedoes, which the Confederates were able to lay down with impunity.

General Banks had been writing to Admiral Porter up to the latter part of February, 1864, to co-operate with him in an advance into the Red River region, and in his answers the Admiral had tried to impress on the General the impropriety of such a movement at the then low stage of water, recommending him to wait until there was a prospect of a rise.

The General, however, insisted that he had certain information of a rise in Red River, and hinted that if he failed in his expedition it would be for want of assistance from the Navy. The Admiral therefore determined that, if Sherman gave up the enterprise, he would co-operate with Banks. The former had never allowed the military authorities to wait for him when anything was to be done to carry on their work, and did not propose to do so on this occasion, although he felt that he was being entangled in an embarrassing predicament, from which it would require all his energies to extricate himself.

When Sherman returned from New Orleans, he informed the Admiral of his proposed advance into the interior of the South, and having abandoned the idea of undertaking the Red River expedition, he had promised General Banks to lend him 10,000 men, under the command of General A. J. Smith, whom he felt sure would cooperate with the Navy in the most energetic manner. And now, finding that Banks was determined to start on this expedition regardless of consequences, Admiral Porter resolved to do every thing in his power to assist his military operations.

To make his success certain, General Halleck had determined to send an army into Arkansas under General Steele. This force reached Little Rock early in March, and, after providing themselves with stores and munitions of war. departed from that place on the 24th. and, after a hard march, arrived at Arkadelphia. March 29th, where, for the present. we will leave them.

General Banks had informed the Admiral that he would march an army of 36,000 men to Alexandria, La.. and would meet him at that place on the 17th of March. On the 10th of March the naval vessels had assembled at the mouth of Red River, and, on the 11th, General A. J. Smith arrived with 10,000 excellent soldiers in transports. After inspecting the forces on shore, the Army and Navy moved up the river on the 12th, the fleet of gun-boats followed by the Army transports. As the largest vessels could barely pass the bar at the mouth of

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