Grant Promoted to General in Chief of Union Army; Red River Campaign Begins: March 1864
March 1864 in the Civil War
Until late February 1864, the highest authorized rank in the Union Army was that of Major General. As the war continued, there were a lot of Major Generals, with a seniority system based on when the rank was confirmed by the U.S. Senate, a system that was strictly adhered to by the generals themselves. President Abraham Lincoln wanted Major General Ulysses S. Grant to assume command of all Union Armies, and to emphasize the point, Congress revived and the President approved, the rank of Lieutenant General for the first time since George Washington held that rank. On March 1st, Lincoln nominated Grant as Lieutenant General and the Senate confirmed the nomination on March 2nd. Grant and Lincoln met for the first time on March 8th in the White House, and the next day the President officially presented the general with his new commission.
With Grant now in command of all Union Armies, Major General William T. Sherman took over his old job as commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi. Major General James B. McPherson assumed command of the Army of the Tennessee, replacing Sherman. Grant did not intend to direct the armies from Washington, and by the end of the month he had established his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac in Virginia. While Major General George Meade remained commander of the Army of the Potomac, he was in an awkward position with the general in chief in such close proximity.
Grant wasted no time and went to work immediately on plans for the upcoming spring campaigns. Union forces would advance along several fronts in Virginia, Sherman would begin a campaign against Atlanta, and Major General Nathaniel Banks was to lead a campaign to capture Mobile, Alabama. The campaigns were to be conducted in a coordinated fashion to put pressure on Confederate defenses simultaneously for maximum effectiveness.
Before those campaigns were to begin, there was another one that had been in the planning stages before Grant was promoted, and it got underway on March 12th. That day, a combined army and navy expedition under Major General Nathaniel Banks and Admiral David Porter began moving up the Red River in Louisiana. This was a campaign that Grant did want, as he believed it diverted military resources away from more important venues and was of little strategic value itself. However, the Lincoln Administration supported it for several reasons. The city of Shreveport was a military and industrial base for Confederate armies in the Trans Mississippi region, and its capture was a major objective of the campaign. From there, the Union Army would be in position to invade eastern Texas, another item on the president’s wish list. Lincoln wanted to establish Union loyal governments in the region. The Union forces were also to secure cotton for New England textile mills hit hard economically by the lack of southern trade. Though some cotton was to be confiscated, cotton buyers accompanied the expedition to accommodate growers who were willing to sell.
Banks had approximately 20,000 men from the 13th and19th Corps of his Department of the Gulf. Joining the expedition were 10,000 veteran troops from the 16th and 17th Corps from the Army of the Tennessee under Brigadier General A.J. Smith, a hard nosed fighter and excellent field commander who served under Sherman. Smith and his men were essentially a temporary loan to the campaign; Grant instructed Banks that Smith’s men would need to be returned to Sherman by April 15th for the upcoming campaign against Atlanta.
Porter had assembled a fleet of 90 ships, including ironclads and other gunboats with a total of 210 heavy guns, plus transport vessels. In Arkansas, 10,000 men under Major General Frederick Steele left Little Rock on March 23rd and headed south toward Shreveport to join in the campaign.
The large Union force moving up river had a great deal of success in the early going, capturing For De Russy on March 14th and Alexandria on March 16th. By March 31st, Federal forces were at Natchitoches, less than 70 miles from Shreveport. Resistance had been relatively light to this point, but a little farther up river, Confederate forces were assembling to meet the threat. The tide would turn against Banks a little more than a week into April.