Red River Fiasco

By Noah Andre Trudeau

Organizing the Expedition

It was Sherman who got Porter involved in the Red River campaign. The general, who had briefly lived in that region and knew something of the river’s character, believed that a determined thrust up the Red to Shreveport would close down all of western Louisiana to Rebel activities and provide a springboard for invading eastern Texas. Naval cooperation would be critical to such an enterprise, and he filled his nautical comrade’s ears with tidbits regarding the river’s behavior. Continuing this thread with President Abraham Lincoln’s chief military adviser, Major General Henry W. Halleck, Sherman came to believe that such a movement was contemplated and that he would direct it. He was half right.

Sherman went to New Orleans to meet the regional military commander, Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, a political general whose past performances more than confirmed Porter’s and Sherman’s low opinion of that species. Banks informed his visitor that he would command the operation himself. Sherman then beat an uncharacteristically hasty retreat after agreeing to commit 10,000 veteran troops to the enterprise, stipulating they were to be returned after 30 days.

When Porter met with Banks, the prospect of working with an Army mediocrity greatly concerned the admiral, though he would have first call on Sherman’s men and trusted his friend’s contention that the mission could be accomplished. Writing years later in the third person, Porter said that “finding that Banks was determined to start on this expedition regardless of consequences, Admiral Porter resolved to do everything in his power to assist his military operations.” 2

The overall plan had three moving parts. Each would have to be performed without a hitch. The immediate objective was to capture Shreveport; a longer-term goal was to control eastern Texas. Major General Frederick Steele with 10,400 men would push southward from Arkansas. Simultaneously, 22,500 soldiers from the Department of the Gulf, Major General William B. Franklin commanding, would depart from bases in southern Louisiana and march across the bayou country to the Red River port of Alexandria, in the heart of one of the South’s most cotton-rich regions. There on 17 March they would join the naval contingent plus Sherman’s 10,000 infantry commanded by Brigadier General Andrew Jackson Smith.

The combined force next would take Shreveport to link up with Steele’s formation. Banks’ slogan for the campaign was said to be “One bound to Alexandria, one bound to Shreveport, one bound to the Gulf [i.e., Texas].” 3

Porter was under no illusions. The Red, he declared, was “the most treacherous of all rivers; there is no counting on it, according to the rules which govern other streams.” 4 It twisted like a snake, its channel was dangerously narrow at places and populated with shifting sandbars, and its riverbed was lined with stumps and snags. He knew from reports that the Confederates had significantly upgraded its defenses, which reportedly included one or more Shreveport-based ironclads ready for action; so the admiral decided that nothing less than overwhelming firepower would do.

Much of the Mississippi Squadron’s might converged beginning on 10 March at the mouth of the Red River near Simmesport: 10 ironclads, 3 river monitors, 11 more lightly armored tinclads, and a miscellany of support/supply vessels, tenders, and tugs. Then there were the densely packed Army transports conveying Smith’s 10,000 men, whose commander Porter would soon add to his favorites list. (Also present was the independent Mississippi Marine Brigade, a unit consisting of 1,000 marines with their own logistical and war vessels, including several rams.) Explained Porter: “I never like to send a boy on a man’s errand.” 5

Cotton Grab after Early Test

The expedition’s first obstacle was a powerful Rebel battery known as Fort DeRussy, which commanded a hairpin turn some 30 miles upstream. Porter and Smith (whose transports arrived on 12 March) worked out a two-pronged attack; Smith would march to assail DeRussy from its unfinished land side while Porter’s gunboats attacked from the river. But the fort fell almost entirely to Smith’s men because, eight miles below, Porter encountered a formidable obstruction made up of two interlocked lines of thick wooden pilings covering the entire channel, which by design had collected a heavy tangle of river flotsam and felled trees. “When I first saw these lower obstructions I began to think that the enemy had blocked the game on us,” the admiral recollected, “and how astonished General Smith would be when he arrived in front of the forts and found no gun-boats to help him!” 6

Porter turned the problem over to Lieutenant Commander Seth Phelps and his powerful ironclad, the Eastport, which sported a wrought-iron ram for a prow. Phelps rang up full speed and drove the Eastport hard into the first group of pilings. His men then heaved a nine-inch hawser around the loosened poles and Phelps ordered full astern, yanking them loose. “The piles were pulled out of the mud faster than dentists pull teeth,” Porter crowed. 7 Still, it took until late afternoon for a passageway to be cleared. Porter’s leading warship reached DeRussy in time to lob a few shots into an exposed battery before Smith’s soldiers overran the fort.

The Yankee infantrymen (save a detail left to demolish the fortifications) re-embarked on 15 March, and with Porter’s fastest gunboat taking the point, reached Alexandria that same afternoon. The admiral had learned a few days earlier that heavy rains along the Louisiana coast were delaying Franklin’s march, but Porter made it a point to get his elements to the link-up site on schedule.

With the Confederates having fled, and Banks’ column running late, Porter and his sailors helped themselves to all the cotton they could gather, under the terms of the Naval Prize Law, which let everyone (including the admiral) share the spoils. By the time Franklin’s men arrived on 20 March and Banks himself five days later, the Yankee tars had cornered the market. To establish their claim, many stenciled appropriated bales “CSA – USN,” which, smirked a Banks aide, stood for “Cotton Stealing Association of the United States Navy.” 8

The extent of the cotton confiscations and the role they played in the campaign remains controversial. A number of speculators accompanied General Banks, all bearing official passes. Well afterward, Porter loudly condemned those greedy traders while remaining smug behind the legal cover of the prize law. Once the Confederate regional commander, Major General Richard Taylor, became aware of the appropriations, he ordered all threatened cotton to be burned.

It was at Alexandria that Porter first realized Banks had a political agenda as well. President Lincoln wanted elections held in Louisiana as part of a reconstruction process he was testing, and it was Banks’ task to oversee the voting. Porter found the inevitable delays irksome.

Smooth Steaming Upriver

It didn’t take a veteran sailor to see that the level of the Red River was well below what everyone expected. Yet when informed by Banks that without the Navy’s presence the grand expedition would fail, Porter fell into line. “I told him I would send up a portion of my fleet at any rate, if I should lose every gunboat I had.” 9 And he nearly did.

Franklin’s land column departed Alexandria on 26 March and Porter’s warships plus Smith’s transports on the 29th for a 50-mile advance to Grand Ecore. Just above Alexandria, Porter initially encountered the mile-long stretch of shallow rapids that would nearly prove his undoing. There was enough water at this stage to allow almost all the Union ships to get through, though it required hard work and cost the loss of an Army hospital ship.

Against the advice of his veteran river pilot, Porter kept the formidable and heavy Eastport in the advance, even though she constantly grounded. For the moment, having her powerful cannon at the head of the line (thus first to engage an anticipated Confederate squadron) outweighed the difficulties—so Porter believed. Not making the trip farther upriver was the independent (and obstreperous) Mississippi Marine Brigade, which was recalled to Vicksburg.

Once clear of Alexandria’s rapids, things went rather smoothly, but for recurring problems with snags and sandbars. But at Grand Ecore the multitasking Banks blundered. He had a choice of reaching Shreveport by having his infantry march along the river’s eastern bank or veer off to the northwest following a narrow but shorter forest trail. Under pressure from Sherman and Grant to quickly complete the mission, Banks chose the forest road, which meant that the land and naval components would undertake the next stage out of supporting distance of each other. The plan called for the two to re-establish contact at Springfield Landing, just below Shreveport. (There was a third option, an even shorter route along the river’s west bank, but no one in blue knew of it, and Banks was too distracted to have the area scouted.)

The troops departed Grand Ecore on 6 April, the Navy one day afterward. Still worried about the low river level, Porter ordered six of his heavy gunboats to hold station. Banks had claimed most of A. J. Smith’s soldiers, leaving Porter with two brigades’ worth under Brigadier General Thomas Kilby Smith, who fortunately proved to be cut from the same cloth as A. J. The naval procession proceeded slowly, sometimes stopping to put troops ashore to flush out suspected ambushes, more often to untangle vessels from the Red River’s snares.

On 10 April Porter’s advance reached the channel leading west from the river to Springfield Landing. There he found further progress stopped by a steamer, the 300-foot-long New Falls City, which Confederates had scuttled and wedged completely across the narrow Red. The sight of the riverblock, Porter noted, “made me laugh. It was the smartest thing I ever knew the rebels to do.” 10 The impudent Confederates had also left him an “invitation in large letters to attend a ball in Shreveport.” 11 While working parties began the arduous task of dismantling the craft, Porter heard rumors that Banks’ column had lost a fight near Mansfield. Confirmation soon arrived in the form of a cavalry detachment carrying a message from Banks indicating that the Union army was returning to Grand Ecore.

Treacherous Trip Back Down

That changed everything. “We are running into a trap,” Porter informed Kilby Smith. “We must turn back . . . or we will be cut off.” 12 The admiral promptly ordered the transport captains to erect barricades to protect the troops and to place artillery on the vessels’ upper decks. The Red River here was so narrow that the large warships could not turn around but had to steam in reverse for miles, seriously straining their engines. The tricky waterway was no help, as groundings and impalings continued to hamper progress. Late on 11 April, Confederate cavalry, cut loose from its victorious army, began an escalating program of harassment.

The 12th proved an especially violent day as fierce firefights erupted between Kilby Smith’s men and Rebels, who now had artillery, lining the shore. Again and again ships went aground while under heavy fire, creating tempting target clusters as other vessels tried to assist. Canister blasts had only momentary effect. Finally, early on the morning of 13 April, Porter’s leading elements reached Grand Ecore, with the tail end arriving on the 15th. A curious Yankee infantryman observed that “the sides of some of the transports are half shot away, and their smoke-stacks look like huge pepper boxes.” 13

Porter had a dispiriting meeting with Banks, who regarded his defeat and retreat as a temporary setback and even talked of still capturing Shreveport. Porter was adamant that “it was unsafe to renew the attempt to move upon Shreveport without a rise in the river; that he could not get his boats up or down.” 14 The loan period on A. J. Smith’s men was nearly expired, so the admiral added his voice to Banks’ in what proved a successful appeal to Sherman to extend the term. Deciding that Banks was not going to change character, Porter started his fleet toward Alexandria on 16 April (the Army departed five days later). This stretch of river proved especially deadly.

The enemy’s lack in numbers was more than matched by their determination. The three days it took Porter to regroup at Grand Ecore was enough for the Confederates to methodically site their ambush locations and sow a few diabolical weapons. The mighty Eastport was again leading the way when, barely clear of the town, she shuddered and began flooding from the bow, having struck a Confederate river torpedo, or mine. Five hours of desperate work failed to prevent the keel from touching bottom, which was only a few feet down. Behind her the rest of Porter’s flotilla began to stack up in yet another traffic jam.

It took six days of almost constant labor, plus the assistance of two pump boats, to refloat the behemoth. The Eastport proceeded slowly southward, but near the town of Montgomery she became solidly wedged on a nest of snags. This time all the muscle in the world wouldn’t help, so Porter ordered the ironclad ram destroyed. A ton of gunpowder did the job at 1345 on 26 April.

Most of Porter’s fleet had squeezed past the stricken vessel, but several tinclads and support boats remained with her crew to the end. Once again the Confederates used the time to target the retreating vessels at choke points. A hurricane of fire lashed them, shredding the unarmored support boats and severely punishing the warships. In one horrid incident, a pierced boiler scalded to death more than 100 contrabands on the boat they thought was carrying them to freedom. Once just above Alexandria, Porter’s problems became infinitely worse.

Low Water Halts the Retreat

The mile-long shallows there were now impassable to Porter’s deep-draught ironclads. While many of the lighter transports and support boats could bump along, the powerful warships were stuck. Those vessels needed at least seven feet of clearance; Porter arrived to find less than three. It was here that Banks partially redeemed himself in Porter’s eyes by vowing to keep his army around Alexandria until the matter was resolved. According to every bit of conventional wisdom, the river should have been deep enough this time of year, but instead it continued to fall. Most of the campaign’s later chroniclers wrote this off as fickle nature, though Porter suspected that the Confederates had “commenced turning the source of water supply off into the lakes.” 15 He was close to the truth.

Confederate engineer Brigadier General William R. Boggs had identified a location some 19 miles below Shreveport called Tone’s Bayou. This slave-dug channel had been carved out in 1851 by an ambitious planter hoping to supplant Shreveport with his own town by redirecting the river into a parallel distributary stream named Bayou Pierre, which merged into the Red just above Grand Ecore. The town failed, but the waterway prospered, and an antebellum state project completed a second channel complementing nearby Tone’s Bayou.

It was Boggs’ idea to dam up the two channels, forcing most of the upper Red’s flow to continue downriver instead of taking its preferred course down Tone’s Bayou into Bayou Pierre. The dams would be breached when enemy warships approached, and the river would dissipate much of its volume across Bayou Pierre’s broader flood plain. On or about 18 March, the dams were blown with a result, reported one regional historian, “like pulling the plug out of a bathtub.” 16

Stuck above Alexandria, David Dixon Porter was at a loss what to do next. “I saw nothing before me but the destruction of the best part of the Mississippi Squadron,” he lamented. 17 He ordered the boats lightened (side armor and some guns were removed) but knew that they would still run too deep. The best Navy idea was to blast a channel through the sandstone rock, but that would take 30 days or more. The longer Banks and his beaten army remained at Alexandria, the greater the chance the Confederates would finally bring together enough troops to finish them off. (That was what Taylor was trying to do, but his immediate superior, worried more about Steele’s tentative column still in Arkansas, refused to reinforce him.) Salvation finally arrived in the person of a U.S. Army engineer.

Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Bailey had extensive logging experience in Wisconsin and knew about manipulating river levels. Pressed by both Franklin and Banks, Porter reluctantly let Bailey try his scheme. Employing several thousand soldiers (many black), the engineer began building wing dams on 30 April just above the rapids at the southern end of the mile-long passage. His workers extended the dams from both river banks, adding coal barges that were packed with bricks and debris and sunk to close a 150-foot gap. His idea was to cluster Porter’s boats in the growing pool behind the dam before blowing the obstruction and trusting the suddenly released water to carry them to safety.

When the barges gave way from the current’s pressure before all Porter’s craft could be assembled, four warships—a timberclad, a tinclad, and two monitors—were able to steam through the breach, leaving six still stranded. Bailey coolly reinforced his first dams and built others to narrow the upper rapids. That compressed the water flow, both scouring the channel and raising the river level, making it possible for the last of Porter’s boats to thump through by 13 May. In a rare admission for a Navy man, Porter said, “words are inadequate to express the admiration I feel for the abilities of Lieutenant-Colonel Bailey.” 18

As the drama was playing out, Confederate land units along the river below Alexandria were playing havoc with the wooden supply vessels and lightly armored warships. In fairly short order two unarmored transports were captured, one of which was carrying 700 members of an Ohio regiment. Even changing over to escorted convoys did not solve the problem.

On 4 May the supply transport John Warner , accompanied by the tinclads Signal and Covington , ran into a well-placed Confederate ambush. The Warner was quickly immobilized, and the two gunboats were pounded into submission, the Covington ’s commander managing to burn his craft before surrendering. Writing in 1886, Porter said, “The brave men in these vessels, only musket-proof, defended them four or five hours and many of the actions heralded to the world during the late war were much less worthy of notice than this contest.” 19

Once the big gunboats reached the scene after 13 May (even with some heavy side armor replaced by coats of tar or black paint, they remained formidable gun platforms), the Confederates backed off, allowing Porter’s battered flotilla to reach the mouth of the Red River by the 18th. A vastly relieved admiral would write his mother that day that his “fleet is safe out in the broad Mississippi.” 20

Laying Blame, Giving Credit

By then Banks was gone, reassigned to an administrative post in New Orleans. To make sure that his head, too, wouldn’t roll, Porter informed Navy Secretary Welles that the failings were all to be laid at Banks’ doorstep. “Never was an officer placed in a more unpleasant position than I am without any fault of mine,” Porter wrote while stuck at Alexandria, “but owing to circumstances over which I have no control.” 21

In truth, Porter shared the blame. Despite misgivings, he allowed himself to be convinced that nonparticipation would have stained the Navy’s reputation. Once committed, he overcommitted by assigning most of his strongest ships to the enterprise, ignoring the fact that they were not suited to the Red River’s particular nature. Porter further stacked the odds against himself because he feared a potential Rebel naval reaction more than the river itself. The Eastport had no business steaming beyond Alexandria; it was like sending a battleship to do a destroyer’s job. Ironically, Porter’s intelligence-gathering was good enough to identify the existence of the enemy warships but not acute enough to glean that they actually posed little threat.

Porter did a good enough job blustering about Banks and cotton that the extent of his exploitation of the “white gold” remains obscure. That said, once the going got tough, Porter got going. While he may have privately despaired of ever getting his flotilla safely away, in public he met and overcame every obstacle. That drive, coupled with the courage, discipline, and fortitude of his sailors (plus a little help from the Army) proved the salvation of his squadron. The Army and Navy lost one hospital boat, five transports, two tinclads, one ironclad, and several small service craft, but it could have been much worse. Some 320 sailors were casualties.

Summing up his opinion about 20 years after the campaign, Porter declared that while the original targets of Shreveport and eastern Texas had merit, in the end “the expedition was unwise and unmilitary . . . for all can see what was seen then by many, that it should never have been undertaken at all.” 22

1. Gideon Welles, The Diary of Gideon Welles , 3 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1909–11), vol. 1, pp. 157–58.

2. David Dixon Porter, Naval History of the Civil War (Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books, 1984), p. 495.

3. U.S. Congress, Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, 1863–1866: The Red River Campaign, 1865 [hereafter cited as CCW], p. 400.

4. Gary D. Joiner and Charles E. Vetter, “The Union Naval Expedition on the Red River,” in Civil War Regiments: The Red River Campaign (Savas/Woodbury publishing, 1994), p. 37.

5. Quoted in Chester G. Hearn, Admiral David Dixon Porter (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996), p. 125.

6. David Dixon Porter, Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1885), p. 214.

7. Porter, Incidents , p. 215.

8. CCW, p. 81.

9. CCW, p. 270.

10. U.S. War Department, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1895–1929), vol. 26, [hereafter cited as ORN] p. 60.

11. Ibid.

12. Porter, Incidents , p. 233.

13. Joiner and Vetter, Union Naval Expedition , p. 59.

14. CCW, p. 14.

15. ORN, p. 69.

16. Gary Dillard Joiner, One Damn Blunder from Beginning to End: The Red River Campaign of 1864 (Wilmington, DE: SR Books, 2003), p. 26.

17. ORN, p. 130.

18. Porter, Incidents , p. 250.

19. Porter, Naval History , p. 529.

20. Joiner and Vetter, Union Naval Expedition , p. 66.

21. ORN, p. 92.

22. Porter, Naval History , p. 535.


Mr. Trudeau is the author of many books about the American Civil War, including Southern Storm: Sherman's March to the Sea (HarperCollins, 2008); Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage (HarperCollins, 2002); Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War, 1862-1865 (Little, Brown and Company, 1998); and Out of the Storm: The End of the Civil War, April-June 1865 (Little, Brown and Company, 1994).

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