The Red River rises in the north west of Texas, runs east across that state into Louisiana, and then south east to its junction with the Mississippi. It was a very tempting line of advance for Union troops based around New Orleans to use if they were to enter Texas.
At the start of 1864 U.S. Grant and Nathaniel Banks were united in their opposition to a Red River expedition. Grant wanted Banks to move east against Mobile, one of the last ports still open to Confederate blockade runners, and then turn north into Alabama, to prevent reinforcements being sent to oppose Sherman’s advance towards Atlanta. However, before Grant had been promoted to command of all Union armies in March 1864, General Halleck had issued orders for a renewed offensive along the Red River, and so Grant felt bound to go along with this plan, which by early March was almost ready to be launched.
The date of the expedition was dictated by the water levels in the Red River. It would only be navigable to Union gun ships for a short period in the spring, starting in the middle of March. The campaign would begin with four commanders. Banks would command the land expedition from New Orleans. That army would travel up the Bayou Teche and reach the Red River at Alexandria. A second army, provided by General Sherman, would travel down the Mississippi, join the fleet at the junction of the Red River and the Mississippi, and travel with that fleet along the Red River to Alexandria. The fleet would be commanded by General Porter.
Finally, a third army, under General Steele, would advance south from Little Rock, Arkansas. That army would meet Banks at Shreveport, well inside Confederate territory. There would be no direct communication between Steele and Banks until their armies could combine. Indeed, the further each advanced, the longer their lines of communication would be.
In theory the combined federal forces would number some 42,000 men. To oppose them Edmund Kirby Smith, the Confederate commander west of the Mississippi, had a total of around 25,000 men. However, neither side would be able to get all of their troops into action. Steele had 17,000 men, none of whom were to play any significant role in the campaign. Kirby Smith had many other demands on his troops. The decisive battles of the campaign would involve much smaller forces.
The Federal advance began well. The fleet entered the Red River on 12 March. Sherman’s detachment captured Fort de Russy, two thirds of the way along the river to Alexandria, on 14 March. The fleet reached Alexandria the next day, and the rest of Sherman’s men on 16 March.
Banks’s force arrived over the next ten days. The cavalry arrived first, on 19 March, followed by the slower moving infantry (25 March) and artillery (26 March). Banks himself arrived on 24 March. Three days later he received new orders are often considered to have made his job much harder. Grant wanted to make sure that the Red River expedition did not go on for too long, so he gave Banks a deadline of 25 April to capture Shreveport, otherwise he would lose Sherman’s detachment. This gave Banks a month to capture Shreveport. In fact the expedition would come to grief on 8-9 April, only two days march from Shreveport.
A more serious problem was that the water level in the Red River was unusually low. It took until 3 April for the gun boats to get past the rapids above Alexandria. Some of the heaviest supply boats were not able to get past the rapids at all. Banks established supply depots at Alexandria, and detached 4,000 men to guard them. Another 3,000 men were lost when General McPherson called the Marine Brigade back to Vicksburg.
Banks did not wait for the fleet before beginning his advance. When the fleet finally got past the rapids, the army had advanced as far as Natchitoches, nearly half way to Shreveport. Another 1,700 men were left to guard the transports, and the rest of the army began what was hoped to be the final march towards Shreveport. Banks now had around 25,000 men.
His direct opponent now was General Richard Taylor, the son of Zachary Taylor. He had around 11,000 men at Mansfield, with orders not to risk a general engagement, but to pick a position where he could fight if Banks advanced. Kirby Smith hoped to discover the location of Banks’s infantry, which he believed to be dangerously exposed along a single road.
On 8 April the two forces clashed (Battle of Mansfield or Sabine Cross-Roads). Taylor’s advance guard encountered Banks’s cavalry and drove them back onto the front units of the Federal infantry. Taylor was able to convert the chance encounter into a significant victory, pushing Bank’s men back to Pleasant Hill.
The next day he pushed his luck too far, launching an attack on the much larger Federal force at Pleasant Hill. This time he was repulsed with heavy losses. However, the Federal troops also suffered significant losses, and that night Banks retreated from Pleasant Hill. The two sides reported remarkably similar losses – Taylor’s total was 3,976 and Banks’s 3,980.
The two days of fighting ended any chance of success for the Red River expedition. Banks’s time limit now meant that his only option was to retreat back to Alexandria. The army reached there safely on 25-26 April, to find orders from Grant calling off the expedition.
A new crisis now developed. The gun boat fleet was stuck above the rapids, in danger of being marooned by the falling water levels of the Red River. Luckily for Banks, Joseph Bailey, the chief engineer on General Franklin’s staff, had some experience of dam building. In the first half of May he built a series of dams of different types, and was able raise the water level above the dams sufficiently for all of the Union ships to escape.
By the time the Federal army returned to the Mississippi at the end of May it was too late for it to take part in any move against Mobile or to help Sherman. Banks was removed from military command by the creation of a new department of the Trans-Mississippi, under General Canby, although left in charge of the military government of Louisiana. On the Confederate side Taylor and Kirby Smith quarrels, and Taylor was relieved of command. Even the cotton speculators who had played a role in getting the campaign launched were to be disappointed – Banks had made sure that all cotton seized during the expedition remained with the army.