May ’64: ‘The Burnings’ in Gen. Banks’ retreat

By Dr. Tery L. Jones
Special to The Journal

After his advance on Shreveport was stopped at the Battle of Mansfield, Union Gen. Nathanial P. Banks retreated. His men knew this was a mistake and took out their frustrations on the people of Louisiana. From Natchitoches to Alexandria, the Yankees’ route was illuminated by burning homes, barns, and mills.

Banks’ army set fire to Natchitoches, Campti, Grand Ecore, Cloutierville, and dozens of plantations and homes. Some of the Cane River Creoles put French flags on their houses and claimed to be French, not American, in the hope it would protect them. It did not. One soldier wrote, “The country was in flames. . . .Buildings were burning on every hand.” Even a Union general declared the arson was “disgraceful to the army of a civilized nation.”

Gen. Richard Taylor tried to cut off Banks’ retreat at the Cane River crossing of Monett’s Ferry, but the superior Union force ran roughshod over his men and continued on to Alexandria. Confederate troops also repeatedly ambushed Adm. David Porter’s vessels on the Red River. Porter lost several ships, and hundreds of runaway slaves seeking refuge on the boats were killed. His largest gunboat, the giant 700-ton ironclad Eastport, hit a mine near Grand Ecore and sank near Montgomery. In 1996, archaeologists discovered the wreck and examined it.

By late April, Porter and Banks reached Alexandria, but Porter found himself trapped by low water at a stretch of shallow rapids. As he prepared to destroy the ships to keep them out of Rebel hands, Lt. Col. Joseph Bailey proposed a daring plan. Bailey was a Wisconsin lumberman-turned-engineer, and he recommended building a series of wing dams to raise the water enough to extract the ships. With nothing to lose, Banks provided Bailey thousands of soldiers to construct the dams. In early May, as “Bailey’s Dam” began to give way from the growing water pressure, the ships rushed through an open gap and escaped.

When the army departed Alexandria on May 13, Union soldiers with buckets of turpentine boasted that they were “preparing the place for Hell!” Flames suddenly engulfed the city. One Union soldier recalled, “Cows went bellowing through the street. Chickens flew out from yards and fell in the streets with their feathers scorching on them. A dog with his bushy tail on fire ran howling through, turning to snap at the fire as he ran. . . .”

Residents grabbed what they could and ran for the levee. With their meager goods piled at their feet, they watched twenty-two city blocks burn to the ground. As the Yankees marched out of town, some walked along the levee and stole what little the people had saved. Banks did not order the burning of Alexandria (or any other town or homes), but there is little doubt some officers encouraged it. A Union soldier even claimed one general rode through the streets yelling, “Hurrah, boys, this looks like war!”

Taylor continued to harass the Union rear guard as Banks marched to the Atchafalaya River near Simmesport. There the Federals again found themselves momentarily trapped because there was no bridge across the wide, turbulent stream. For the second time in the campaign, however, Colonel Bailey saved the day by building what at the time was the longest pontoon bridge in American history. To keep the enemy from interfering with the work, Banks placed one division in the rear along Yellow Bayou to hold back Taylor. A vicious firefight erupted there on May 18. Both sides charged and countercharged through thick canebrakes until the woods caught on fire and wounded men began to burn alive. Soldiers from both armies then rushed into the flames to save them, and the battle sputtered out. Taylor lost 452 men at Yellow Bayou, while Banks lost 267.

Bailey completed his bridge, and the Union army successfully crossed over the Atchafalaya on May 20, leaving Taylor stranded on the west bank. For providing invaluable service to both the army and navy, Joseph Bailey was awarded the Medal of Honor.

The Red River Campaign was a Union disaster. Banks failed to capture Shreveport or invade Texas, was defeated by a smaller Confederate force at Mansfield, and retreated unnecessarily after winning the Battle of Pleasant Hill. He even failed to capture the cotton that lured him into the region in the first place. Gen. William T. Sherman perhaps best summed up the operation when he declared that it was “one damn blunder from beginning to end.”

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.