Military Adventures Beyond the Mississippi
The Red River Expedition
Northwestern Louisiana, rich in all agricultural products, had long supplied the Southern Confederacy with various products. Apparently beyond the reach of the Federal armies, it was stored with immense quantities of cotton. A railroad runs from Shreveport at the extreme western boundary of the State east to Vicksburg. The Red River, an important tributary of the Mississippi, flows southeasterly across the State through this region, at once watering the country through which it flows and furnishing an otherwise inaccessible region with easy access to the markets.
Upon the west bank of this river, about one hundred and fifty miles from its month, is situated the town of Alexandria, a place of some two or three thousand inhabitants. It had been temporarily occupied by General Banks in his Opelousas expedition, bat necessarily abandoned again when he withdrew his forces to lay siege to Port Hudson. Early in the spring of 1864 General Banks fitted out an expedition for the purpose of entering and occupying this territory. He withdrew for this purpose a part of his forces from Texas, concentrating them in and about New Orleans. He divided the army into three corps. He commanded the expedition in person. General Franklin was second in command. Admiral Porter, with a fleet of gunboats and transports; co-operated in the movement.
General Franklin landed from transports early in March, a few miles below this fort, to cooperate with the gun-boats in an attack upon it. General Taylor determined to attack him before the rest of the Union force should come up, and marched out of his works for that purpose. But he committed the fatal mistake of attacking his foe in the rear. General Franklin was quick to avail himself of his enemy’s blunder, abandoned his communications, refused battle, and marched straight for the now vacant fort. General Taylor saw his error too late to retrieve it, and, hastened after his antagonist in vain. The Union army entered the fort, three hours in advance of the rebels, unopposed, capturing, without a battle, 325 prisoners, 10 guns, a lot of small-arms, and large stores of ammunition. Thus, by a military blunder, the rebels lost the entire advantage of their year’s engineering labor, the fleet passed up the river without opposition, and occupied Alexandria on the 15th of March, the army entering it the day following. The rebel army fell back further up the river. It was soon increased by timely reinforcements. General Magruder joined it with 2500 Texans, and General Price with 7000 infantry from Missouri and Arkansas. The entire force was commanded .by General Kirby Smith.
Meanwhile the residents of Alexandria suffered alike from friend and foe. Such cotton as was found in store was seized by the fleet as its lawful .prize, while orders were given by the rebel commander to burn that which was stored along the river to prevent it from falling into the Federal hands, Rebel cavalry overran the country executing the order. Thousands of bales were thus destroyed. The people, as usual, suffered no less from the protection afforded by their friends than from the captures and confiscations by their supposed enemies.
Near the northwestern boundary of Louisiana is the town of Shreveport., This was supposed to be the ultimate destination of General Banks^ expedition. Here, therefore, strong fortifications had been erected, obstructions had been placed in the river; provisions were here accumulate^ sufficient last for a siege of six months. The events which followed rendered it unnecessary for the rebels to make use of these their lost resort. After about ten days' delay at Alexandria, where General Banks concentrated his forces and prepared for their future movements,
he commenced his march. The gun-boats succeeded in passing the falls in the river, which are situated at this point. The army took up its line of march by land. About thirty miles above Alexandria the Federal advance met the rebels strongly posted at Cane River. Their force was considerable, and their position advantageous; but after a short engagement with artillery and skirmishers a general charge was ordered, and the rebels heat a hasty, though well-ordered retreat. This was on the 28th of March.
The army were in high spirits. They thought they were sweeping easily all before them. The rebels were said to be disorganized and dissatisfied. A correspondent had already written:
“It is useless for them (the rebels) to attempt to keep back the irresistible column which General Franklin will hurl against them.”
This confidence, apparently shared alike by officer and private, increased by the victory so easily gained at Cane River, brought to a disastrous issue what, more prudently conducted, might have proved a successful expedition. The Union army pressed rapidly forward. The rebels as rapidly retreated. Grand Ecore was passed. Natchitoches (pronounced Nakitosh), capital of the parish of that name, was occupied without opposition; and on the 6th of April the army continued its advance toward Shreveport. At Grand Ecore the road leaves the river bank. It passes through Natchitoches four miles from Grand Ecore, the nearest river town. Then it enters heavy pine-woods. A single road conducts through this uncleared forest. It affords excellent opportunities for ambuscade.
The Union army no longer enjoyed the formidable protection of the gun-boats. The rebels had purposely avoided battle until they could fight without being compelled to encounter these greatly dreaded foes. The elated army, however, neither anticipated nor prepared for serious resistance. The cavalry, five thousand men, constituted the advance. It was commanded by General Lee. They were followed by their wagon-train. Several miles in the rear was the nearest infantry force. This was the Thirteenth Army Corps. The Nineteenth Corps was still further in the rear. On the 7th the cavalry found its progress somewhat resisted. There was slight skirmishing, but nothing worthy of the name of a battle. But on the following day General Lee sent back for reinforcements. He had driven the rebels some eight miles. They had at length made a stand from which he was unable to dislodge them. General Ransom with two divisions was ordered forward to his assistance. Nothing like a general engagement was expected or prepared for. General Ransom indeed urged awaiting the arrival of the rest of the army; but he was overruled. I
An order to charge upon the rebels was given. It was obeyed. The issue proved the greatness of the mistake. The rebels, under cover of the trees, had formed an ambuscade in the shape of an enormous V. The devoted soldiers, entering the opened wedge at its base, charged upon the apex. The wings then closed upon them. They were mowed down by a terrific fire both from front and either flank. The cavalry was thrown into disorder, and began to retreat down the road filled with the infantry. The wounded and dying were trodden under the horses’ feet. The infantry, surprised by the murderous fire from a concealed foe, were thrown into utter confusion by the retreating cavalry, who, completely routed, cantered in wild disorder through their lines. An attempt was made to withdraw and meet reinforcements from the Nineteenth Corps further back; but the single narrow road was effectually blockaded by the cavalry wagon-train.
An orderly retreat was impossible. Soon all was in the utmost confusion. “Let every man take care of himself!” became the universal cry. General Ransom made the most heroic efforts to rally his men—but in vain. Generals Banks and Franklin, hearing of disaster, hastened to the front, and mingled in the thickest of the fight. The first named officer was severely wounded in the knee. General Banks received a shot through the hat, and narrowly escaped capture. The wagon-train could not be carried off and was abandoned to the enemy. Twenty guns fell into the rebels’ hands. Among these captures was the Chicago Mercantile Battery. The Federal loss was very heavy. General Franklin is reported to have said that the scene was far more terrible, and the rout more complete, than any thing at Bull Run. One regiment came out of the encounter with but fifty eight men. Nearly half of the Thirteenth Corps were placed hors du combat. The entire army was only saved from utter demolition by the timely arrival of reinforcements from the Nineteenth Corps and the darkness of approaching night. This engagement is known by the name of the Battle of Mansfield. There seems little reason to doubt that the disaster was the result of mismanagement. General Banks, supposing that he was pursuing a retreating and disorganized foe, was led into a trap, from which he barely succeeded in extricating himself and his command. He engaged the enemy with but two divisions of infantry, expecting only a skirmish, and totally unprepared for a general engagement.
The night of the 8th was full of anxiety. The national army continued its retreat during the darkness, and arrived at Pleasant Hill by early dawn of the 9th—a distance of from twelve to eighteen miles. Here the army, which had been so disastrously defeated only because it fought in fractions, was concentrated. General A. J. Smith, with the Sixteenth Army Corps, held the right; General Franklin, with the Nineteenth Corps, held the left. The Thirteenth Corps, exhausted and almost destroyed by the previous day’s fighting, was unable to participate in the anticipated battle.
The army being thus posted to receive an attack, if one should he made, General Banks ordered the retreat to continue to Grand Ecore. The wagon train was immense. It took nearly all day to get it started. The rebels made no attack until toward evening. Then they assailed at once the entire line. It was about five o’clock when the attack was made. At first it proved successful. The Federal soldiers were forced back for nearly or quite half a mile. Several guns were captured. The moment was critical. The reserve line was reached. Here, however, the patriot host made a new stand. The rebels charged upon it with fiery purpose, in two lines—one close behind the other. They were greeted with a terrific fire from concentrated batteries of artillery and thousands of rifles. They trembled and recoiled before the shock. No time was given them to recover from its effect. General Smith ordered a charge. With a wild shout the undaunted soldiery obeyed the command; and the rebels broke and fled, leaving the Union army in possession of the field.
Last updated 10/11/2009.