March 1864: Red River Campaign over cotton

By Dr. Terry L. Jones
Special to The Journal

• Union Attack on Fort DeRussy (The Louisiana Journey)

By 1864, Confederate power was in a steep decline as the Union blockade and numerous defeats took their toll. In March, Gen. U.S. Grant was made commander of all the Union armies, and he devised a strategy to end the war by making simultaneous attacks on crucial cities in Louisiana, Georgia, and Virginia. Grant knew the Confederates would have to defend those cities to protect their industrial base. The offenses were a way to draw the Rebel armies into open battle, where they could be destroyed by the superior Union forces.

In Louisiana, Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks was to lead an invasion up the Red River toward Shreveport. Banks was a Massachusetts politician who had no prior military experience before the war. He cut an impressive figure, but was described as being arrogant and a "pretentious humbug." One of his subordinates declared that Banks "means well, but I fear that he lacks a little either of education or confidence to push things through." Those words would prove to be prophetic.

Shreveport, Banks' target, was the most important city in the Trans-Mississippi Department (that part of the Confederacy west of the Mississippi River). Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith commanded the vast region from there, and the city served as the seat of government for Confederate Gov. Henry Watkins Allen. Shreveport also was an industrial site that produced many war-related goods, including iron-clad gunboats and submarines.

Once he captured Shreveport, Banks intended to invade Texas. In violation of the Monroe Doctrine, the French had established the Emperor Maximilian in Mexico, and he and France were sympathetic to the Rebel cause. Mexico provided supplies to the Confederates, and President Lincoln feared Maximilian might try to extend French influence northward. Banks was to establish a Union presence in Texas to contain French expansion and cut off Rebel aid.

Cotton was another goal of the campaign. Massachusetts was a major textile producing center, but the mills found it difficult to get enough cotton to keep workers employed. If Banks could confiscate Rebel cotton and ship it home, he would be hailed a hero and his political future secured. Intelligence reports indicated there were 50,000 bales of cotton stockpiled in the Red River Valley, and Banks wanted it all.

In March 1864, Banks led about 20,000 men up Bayou Teche, while Adm. David Porter's large fleet of ships with 10,000 additional soldiers came up the Red River. They were to meet at Alexandria and continue on to Shreveport together. All Kirby Smith could muster to stop the invasion was the small 7,000-man army under Gen. Richard Taylor. Like Banks, Taylor was a politician with no prior military experience. But he was the son of former president and war hero Zachary Taylor and had learned how to fight in Virginia under Stonewall Jackson.

On March 14, Porter attacked and captured Fort De Russy, a large Confederate fort guarding the Red River near Simmesport, and moved upstream. Reaching Alexandria before Banks, the Union sailors stripped the countryside of cotton, painting "USN" next to the Confederate "CSA" label to show it now belonged to the U.S. Navy. Banks was furious when he arrived and found no cotton left for the army to take. His disappointed soldiers griped that "CSA USN" actually stood for the "Cotton Stealing Association of the United States Navy."

During this initial phase of the campaign, General Taylor was too weak to contest Banks' advance. He urgently requested reinforcements, but in the meantime had to retreat before the Union juggernaut. In a humiliating defeat, the enemy surprised one of Taylor's cavalry regiments in its camp at Henderson's Hill, some twenty miles northwest of Alexandria. The Yankees surrounded the camp one night in a pouring rain and captured 250 men, four cannons, and 200 horses.

When the main Union force prepared to leave Alexandria, Porter encountered a problem that would plague his ships throughout the campaign. The usual spring rains had failed and the river was dropping steadily. What Porter did not know was that the ingenious Rebels had also opened up a clogged distributary south of Shreveport and were draining water out of the river to hinder the progress of the enemy's gunboats. The falling water made it difficult for Porter to get his forty-two vessels over a series of shallow rapids at Alexandria, but he finally succeeded. He and Banks then continued upriver toward Grand Ecore, the river port for Natchitoches. Taylor retreated before them but slowly gathered reinforcements and planned his next move.

Dr. Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and has published six books on the American Civil War.