Admiral David Porter Rips the Leadership and Tactics of the Red River Campaign in a Letter to General William T. Sherman
In March 1864, a joint army–navy expedition under the commands of Major General Nathaniel Banks and Admiral David Porter ascended the Red River in Louisiana with an immediate objective of capturing the city of Shreveport, headquarters of the Confederate Army of the Trans Mississippi. The campaign also had several other political, military, and economic objectives. President Abraham Lincoln wanted to reestablish a Union friendly government throughout Louisiana, and he eventually wanted to retake Texas for the Union. Federal control of the Red River and Shreveport would put the north in a good position for a future attack into the Lone Star State. The expedition would also capture as much cotton as possible for the benefit of the New England textile industry.
Admiral Porter agreed to command the naval forces in the campaign because he understood that General William T. Sherman would lead the army. However, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant wanted Sherman to command the Atlanta Campaign. Grant didn’t think much of the proposed Red River Campaign; he wanted a movement against the port of Mobile, Alabama instead, but reluctantly went along with the Louisiana campaign.
Porter did not like Banks; he regarded the political general as a lightweight at best and incompetent at worst, an opinion more or less shared by many Union commanders, including Brigadier General A. J. Smith. Smith was a hard nosed, hard fighting general who was a graduate of West Point. Smith, along with about 10,000 troops, was loaned to the expedition by Grant with the understanding that Smith’s command would be back to Sherman in time to participate in the Atlanta Campaign.
Banks’ army was stopped short of Shreveport and defeated at the Battle of Sabine Crossroads, or Mansfield, on April 8th. A slow retreat downriver lasting six weeks commenced. Banks’ army was harassed by Confederate forces on the way back down and Porter’s fleet was nearly stranded by low water in the river. Shortly after the defeat at Mansfield, Porter wrote a letter to his friend Sherman in which he described the campaign, praised A.J. Smith’s command, and placed blame for the still forming debacle squarely on Banks. Porter was not above embellishing himself and minimizing others (something he had in common with commanders on both sides of the war), but his assessment of Banks leadership and tactics, or lack thereof, was essentially correct. The letter is an informative and entertaining narrative of the campaign up to that point.
Off Alexandria, La., April 16, 1864.
DEAR GENERAL: I wrote you a hurried note the other day, by General Corse, and I imagine your disappointment at having your well-laid plans interfered with and having part of your command mixed up in an affair, the management of which would be discreditable to a boy 9 years of age. You need not blush, however, for anything that was done by your troops. General A. J. Smith was not in the fight on the first day, but on the second day, when Franklin’s corps, which behaved nobly, began to waver before the wild and desperate shocks of the rebels, who came on shouting like madmen, he, with 8,000 men, charged through Franklin’s ranks and met the incoming devils with a “Hi! Hi!” that brought them to a full stop. Smith’s men then poured in their volleys, which cut up the rebels into mince-meat; they turned and fled, and your boys chased them 3 miles, until everyone of them disappeared, leaving General Smith in possession of the battle ground, all the killed and wounded, twelve pieces of our artillery lost the day before, two of which he brought off.
At this important moment, when there was not a rebel within 6 miles of us, General Smith was ordered to retreat. He begged permission to remain long enough to bury his dead and remove his wounded,
all of which was denied him. The Confederates sent in a flag of truce six hours after, asking permission to bury their dead, and found the cannon they had left behind them, and the killed and wounded in possession of the field. The general will never get over it as long as he lives; he cried like a child at having to leave his poor fellows on the field. I am, however, getting a little ahead of my story. I must give you a little sketch of the first day’s fight, and tell you how it happened.
General Banks, you must know, has organized 6,000 infantry into mounted cavalry under the command of General Lee, who travels with 250 wagons and a camp train of many persons. He was not satisfied with his large command, but made frequent applications to General Franklin for 2,500 infantry as a guard to the cavalry. Franklin persistently refused to give him these men, very properly arguing that without them Lee would not be precipitating a battle, while with them he might get the army into a fight when they were not prepared for it.
On the 6th instant the army of General Banks left Grand Ecore. The fleet left at the same time for Springfield Landing, which we were to reach on Sunday, the 10th, at 12 o’clock. We made our time to the minute, with difficulties enough to appall a stout heart. General A. J. Smith left Grand Ecore the next day after the grand army, and had a terrible time in getting to the front through the numerous trains which completely blocked up the road. The same day that General Smith left Grand Ecore General Lee was set in advance with his cavalry to reconnoiter, his whole train of wagons in his rear (250 in all) close after him; the army, consisting of the Nineteenth Corps, under Franklin, some regiments of negroes, and the Thirteenth Corps, under Ransom, were coming on behind in only one road and in no particular order, as far as I can learn. There was sharp skirmishing in the front by the cavalry, who were apparently driving the enemy (that is the enemy were leading them into a trap), and Lee was sending Franklin messages to lend him 2,500 men with which to annihilate them. Franklin sent him word that he was not sent out to bring on a battle, and to fall back at once and act on the defensive until the main body of the army came up. Unfortunately, at this time General Banks rode to the front, and Franklin said he saw there was going to be terrible work. Lee’s messages reached Banks, and he ordered Ransom with 2,500 men to reinforce Lee. Ransom protested against this disposition of his men, stating that they would be sacrificed, but General Banks ordered the movement. Franklin then prepared for the consequences which he knew were to follow. In a short time the cavalry, emboldened by the small support, brought on a fight. The part of the Thirteenth Corps did its best to support them, but, opposed to about 15,000 infantry, were swept away almost to a man. The cavalry broke and fled back on the wagons, the wagons stampeded and blocked up the road, while such a scene ensued as was never seen before except at Bull Run.
Franklin opened his ranks and let the flying mass through, and received the rebels with such a murderous fire that they were soon dispersed, leaving many killed and wounded on the field. The rebels fought well that day, indeed desperately, coming up to the charge in a compact body and filling up their ranks as their men fell like veterans. It was just such a time as our men would have desired in the open field, but the panic created by the disorder at first was too great to get the men to do their work thoroughly. There was enough done, however, to allow us to hold our position and recover our lost trains. To expect to recover again the 18 guns we lost was out of the question. They were mixed up with the trains, and the rebels had secured them with 100 rounds of ammunition each. Three of the best batteries in the army were lost and most of the men killed or wounded. Part of Nims’ battery was taken and all the ammunition wagons.
At I o’clock that night the army retreated back to Pleasant Hill, the fugitives arriving at Grand Ecore reporting that the army was cut to pieces, and I hear that when the general and staff arrived at Pleasant Hill he had lost all command of himself. I do not wonder at that. An uneducated soldier may be cool and pleasant enough in the hour of victory, but the true general is best known in the hour of defeat. General Banks lost all his prestige, and the men talked so openly of him that our officers had to check them and threaten to have them punished. Retreat was still the order of the day, and the army was ordered to fall back on Grand Ecore. The reason given was want of provisions. The rebels, however, pushed their advantage and attacked us on our own ground, charging right at the Nineteenth Army Corps, which met them like men, sweeping them away with artillery and musketry. Still on they came, and Franklin’s commenced to waver, when General Smith came on with that splendid charge and scattered them like sheep.
Out of 500 cavalry that charged on A. J. Smith’s division only one man escaped; every saddle was emptied. He saved the fortunes of the day, and chased the rebels, as I have stated in the former part of this letter. The latter retreated 15 miles without stopping, and our army soon followed their example, showing the singular spectacle of two armies running away from each other, both claiming the victory. Certain it is that the rebels sent in a flag of truce asking permission to bury their dead, and finding no one there, they took possession of the field with all our killed and wounded, the guns they had lost themselves, and have held it ever since. Our pickets do not extend even beyond Natchitoches, but we are encamped at Grand Ecore, the headquarters of the general near the big red brick house of De Russy’s.
A. J. Smith is encamped on the plain above the bluffs, outside of the present line of defense. The gunboats are drawn up in line in front of A. J. Smith, who will have to take our fire over his head, which he is willing to do. While all the fighting was going on shore the fleet was slowly and painfully working its way up Red River, through snaggy bends, loggy bayous, shifting rapids, and rapid chutes. The rebels, frightened to death, went on before us, burning all the fine cotton (bales being hid in the woods), but destroying none of the corn or cattle. Of these we found an abundance, and though we only stopped at three or four places there was enough and more to satisfy the troops without touching the rations. It struck me very forcibly that this would have been the route for the army, where they could have traveled without all that immense train, the country supporting them as they proceeded along. The roads are good, wide fields on all sides, a river protecting the right flank of the army, and gunboats in company. An army would have no difficulty in marching to Shreveport in this way.
There is Bayou Pierre to pass and some bridges to be built, but that is child’s play to our Western men, and “not so bad as being beaten” in a pine barren with only one road through it, and that a narrow one, where troops can not pass carts. I send you a correct map, which I think will give you a good idea of the views I have expressed, if you have not got it already, knowing this country as well as you do. Why General Banks went through a desert where he could not even find water (so he says) instead of a prolific country, I can not say. You know I have always said that Providence was fighting this great battle its own way and brings these reverses to teach us–a proud, stiff-necked, and unthankful people–how to be contented under a good government, if peaceful times come again. I hope it will teach us not to place the destinies of a great nation in the hands of political generals or volunteer admirals.
When I arrived at Springfield Landing I found a sight that made me laugh. It was the smartest thing I ever knew the rebels to do. They had gotten that huge steamer, New Falls City, across Red River, 1 mile above Loggy Bayou, 15 feet of her on shore on each side, the boat broken down in the middle, and a sand bar making below her. An invitation in large letters to attend a ball in Shreveport was kindly left stuck up by the rebels, which invitation we were never able to accept. We had landed, though, at Springfield Landing with many hundred thousand rations, 26 transports, and 6 gunboats. Word had already gone to General Dick Taylor, at Mansfield, that the transports contained many men (a large force). whereas we only had 2,000 under General Kilby Smith; still that report shook the rebels.
We surprised the guard who were watching our movements. My boat, the Cricket, came on them suddenly; our men rushed on shore, nearly taking them while eating their supper, and the letter was lying on the table giving an account of our “strong force” When the recipient was in the act of reading it he got away to carry the news to Taylor, who would have been in full retreat on Shreveport had General Banks not appeared on the field on the morning of the 8th. While discussing the feasibility of getting the Falls City out of the way (we were provided with everything to do it) a courier rode in to tell us that Banks had been badly whipped and was in full retreat to Grand Ecore, and that the transports and troops were ordered “to return without delay,” an easier thing said than done. We had disembarked the troops, none dreaming of anything but victory to one of the best appointed armies I ever saw in the field, and after getting in our pickets and getting the troops on board, I reversed the order of steaming and with a heavy heart started downward, anticipating that the rebels, flushed with victory, with our army in full retreat before them, would come in on our flank and cut us to pieces.
The banks were high above our pilot houses and sharpshooters could annoy us with impunity. I was much annoyed when I found that General Banks’s quartermasters had added to the convoy ten large steamers which I had expressly stipulated with General Kilby Smith were not to come up the river. We were detained six hours lightening one of them loaded with ammunition and the others were constantly getting into trouble. General Kilby Smith was in no way responsible for this outrageous proceeding, for it was done after we departed from Grand Ecore, and that officer left nothing undone to cooperate with me and carry the expedition through successfully, On all occasions I found General Smith ready and willing to cooperate in the same harmonious manner that has always existed between the Navy and the Army of the Tennessee. I am sure nothing will occur to interrupt that good feeling. As I anticipated, the rebels were soon aware of our turning back and were after us like a pack of wolves. They assailed us from every point, but the dispositions that were made always foiled them. We always drove them away with loss. The large transports so impeded us that it was with difficulty we made more than 20 miles a day, and it seemed that everything we came in contact with belonging to Banks’ army was disorderly and a drawback to us. My gunboats were helping them off sand bars half the time, they having no disposition to help each other.
Small bands of 100 or 150 had followed us along until we arrived at a place called Graff’s Bluff, where our friends, the negroes, informed us that the rebels had a battery. It was about 3 o’clock in the afternoon and I laid to the bank while two gunboats could get into position to whip the battery. They were permitted to occupy the place quietly, and I began to think there was none about. We shelled the woods in all directions and they kept quiet. At this moment a tremendous fire of musketry and heavy cannon, interspersed with artillery, broke out about 3 miles behind us. It sounded like a heavy battle. Hearing all the guns of the gunboats I did not fear for the result. It lasted so long that I at last turned my head upstream to join in the fray and met a gunboat coming down whose captain told me it was all over and the rebels had fled, so I tied up to the bank again, expecting the attack in front, when the firing commenced again and lasted until nearly sunset; in all, two hours.
It turned out to be what I had been expecting, an attack with artillery and infantry, 2,000 strong, in our rear, General Kilby Smith and two transports being divided from the main body by the artillery, which it was not proper to pass until silenced by the gunboats. This body of men was commanded by General Green, the best man they have, and one in whom the rebels place more confidence than anyone else. He led his men to the very edge of the bank, they shouting and yelling like madmen. They were handsomely received by the Osage and Lexington in the old style. General Smith, in the Hastings, with part of his men, poured in his fire, and amongst us the rebels were cut into mincemeat. General Green and Colonel Chisum had their heads blown off with an 11-inch shell.
The ground was covered with killed and wounded and without great loss to ourselves. We whipped out 2,000 rebels and kept 5,000 more in the rear of us from advancing, not liking the reports of the first party’s reception. This saved us from further molestation as far as large parties were concerned, but we were terribly annoyed by small bands. It being moonlight, I ordered all the transports to leave, and had they taken advantage of the time they would have arrived in Grand Ecore next morning. After getting them all ahead I reversed the order of sailing and followed them up, but when I arrived at Campti I found them so mixed up and aground that I pushed on, and in three hours had General A. J. Smith underway with five regiments of infantry and a field battery. He arrived just in time to outflank the rebels with their heavy field battery, which they kept exclusively for the transports, hiding it when the gunboats came along. It was a most exciting and interesting week; much danger of being cut off unless aided by General Banks, which aid was not sent until I asked for it in person.
Some one got in a quartermaster’s boat who reported everything safe, and General Smith on that account did not go himself, though ready to start at a moment’s notice. Finally all came in safely, not losing a rope yarn. Your men behaved splendidly and coolly, and General Kilby Smith like a brave and gallant officer. I shall always feel proud to be associated with him, and we will both likely remember for many a day the perilous scenes we have gone through together. I found General A. J. Smith much depressed at some things that had occurred, but anxious to go out and whip the rebels, which we are able to do without any trouble. Instead of that, I think General Banks is watching for an opportunity to retreat. If General Smith should leave him there would be a general stampede and much loss of material, and General A. J. Smith would be made the scapegoat. Finding the water falling I sent down my largest gunboats, and regret to say that the Eastport ran on a torpedo and sank. The damage was slight, and the shock only noticed by a few persons on board, and it was not for some time after they found water in her hold. She was five hours sinking, but we had no pumps that could save her. The captain forgot to put canvas under her bottom, which would have saved her. Unless we have more water I shall be kept above the falls, but with a land force at Alexandria I can hold my own until next year. We must hold the country, general, and not have to go all over this again.
Had Banks been victorious, as any ordinary general would have been, we would have had no trouble at all, but he has led all hands into an ugly scrape. I did all I could to avoid going up this river with him, but he would have thrown all the blame of failure on me had I failed to go. I have risked a great deal and only hope for a rise of water to get over the falls.
There are all kinds of surmises on the subject. We have had no rise this year at all. Do you think it will come? You know the nature of these rivers, having resided here so long. I have written you a long letter and said to you confidentially what I would not say to anyone else, knowing that it will go no farther. I am just down from Grand Ecore; have come to provide pumps to save the Eastport, which I will do if Banks does not retreat. If he does, I will blow her up; am getting her guns off at once. Now, what is to become of Steele. Banks has sent him a messenger. Will he (think you) be sacrificed, or can he take care of himself? Why not reinforce him well and let him finish the job so badly begun? If this matter is left in this state it will be a lasting disgrace to us. The rebels had 22,000 men, about 19,000 effective. Losing General Green has paralyzed them; he was worth 5,000 men to them.
Wishing you success in all your undertakings, and asking your forbearance for writing you so long a letter, I remain, truly and sincerely, yours,
DAVID D. PORTER,
Major-General W. T. SHERMAN,
Comdg. Mil. Div. of the Miss., Nashville, Tenn.
Confederate forces harassed the Federals as they retreated back down the Red River, with the final action taking place at the Battle of Yellow Bayou on May 18th. Days later, Banks met with Major General Edward Canby, who informed him that he had been relieved of command. He spent the rest of the war in administrative posts. General A.J. Smith’s command did not join in the Atlanta Campaign, but saw significant action at the Battles of Tupelo, Mississippi, the repulse of Sterling Price’s Missouri Campaign, and the Battle of Nashville in 1864 and was in action at Mobile, Alabama in 1865. Admiral Porter, who had commanded operations with the brown water navy on the western rivers for much of the war, went back to the blue water navy as commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. He led naval forces in the capture of Fort Fisher, North Carolina in 1865, closing down the last open Confederate port.
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 26.
One Damn Blunder from Beginning to End: The Red River Campaign of 1864
by Gary Dillard Joiner.
Red River Campaign: Politics and Cotton in the Civil War
by Ludwell H. Johnson
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