March 31, 1864 (Thursday)
The Red River in Louisiana typically rose, and sometimes flooded, over the winter months. There were some years, 1855 for instance, where it simply didn’t happen. This year, 1864, was another. For Admiral David Dixon Porter, who commanded a gigantic naval fleet attempting to navigate the Red, this was becoming a problem. With little effort, his fleet of over 100 vessels steamed as far as Alexandria. There, along with a corps from the Army of the Tennessee, they halted, waited for General Nathaniel Banks’ Army of the Gulf.
Once Banks arrived, he slowly began looking toward Natchitoches and Shreveport, where Confederates under Richard Taylor had retreated. While Banks could march his troops across the land, Porter had to navigate the shallow depths of the Red River. Of particular annoyance was Alexandria Falls.
These were not waterfalls as much as a series of rapids strew throughout with gigantic boulders. A river pilot who knew the waters well would have been able to steer the crafts through, avoiding the rocks and the shore. But no such person was available to Admiral Porter.
“We had no pilots of any account,” recalled Porter after the war, “and got along by main strength and nonsense.” But what Porter encountered was really anything but getting along.
General William Tecumseh Sherman had warned Porter that the rise of the river would be late in coming this year. Porter, in turn, warned Banks. But Banks, according to Porter anyway, cared not at all and demanded that the vessels give it a shot anyway. Banks, however, was under extreme pressure from both Washington and Sherman to wrap up the Red River Campaign by the middle of April. He could spend all of that time just waiting for the river to rise.
The Mound City, for example tied up to the bank below the falls on the 29th, being told to wait for a tugboat to pull her farther. “At 8:45 tug came with orders from admiral [Porter] not to attempt the rapids until the wind had subsided.” After the wind died down, the Mound City made the attempt. “Struck a shoal at 6:15pm and grounded.” The next day, her crew drew a line to the shore and with the help of another ship, she was afloat by 8:40am. Finally, on this day, the crew aided in dragging the Ozark over the falls – a task which wouldn’t be completed until near noon the following day.
It would take until April 3 for Porter to clear the falls, and Banks would later claim that as the reason for his slow advance. On the 29th, Admiral Porter reported that “after a great deal of labor and two and a half days’ hard work, we succeeded in getting the Eastport over the rocks on the falls, hauling her over by main force.”
The Eastport, one of the heaviest vessels, was across, joining her compatriots which had already navigated the falls. Porter concluded that these seven or eight vessels were all that was needed to aid Banks’ troops.
The falls, however, were more of an obstacle than Porter recalled after the war. In his report on the 29th, Porter stated that other vessels got through with the Eastport, and that “a few more remain to be gotten over.” His work was far from over, and thus far, it was far from easy.
“It is very slow work getting over these rocks,” he continued, “but as yet we have met with no accidents. One hospital ship [Woodford], belonging to the Marine Brigade, sunk on the falls by striking the rocks, but all the rest of the transports went over safely.” It was hardly without accident, but Porter had a way of overlooking things like that.
“I shall only be able to take up a part of the force I brought with me,” he admitted, “and leave the river guarded all the way through.” The remaining ships were to act as guards against marauding Rebel cavalry, which was just now joining General Taylor, whose main force was in retreat.
And though seven or eight of his ships were clear of the rapids, Porter received word on this date that the Confederates were trying to obstruct the Red River at the mouth of Loggy Bayou. This would be a problem that Porter would recall long after the war.
“If one [vessel] got on a bank, another would haul him off,” wrote Porter, “and there was not a vessel there that did not haul the others off three or four times before we got to Loggy Bayou – the name is significant enough without saying any more in regard to it.”
The locals, mostly Rebels, were no help at all:
“The people all along were kind to us as we went up, and gave us information cheerfully whenever we asked it. Only it was curious that their information led us into all kinds of difficulties. Where they told us the deep water was, we found shoals and snags, and where we were told to go through a cut-off we found it blind. But how could these poor people know? Likely they had never been on a steamboat or on the river in their lives.”
But by the 30th, Porter’s Eastport had already taken Grand Ecore, and Richard Taylor’s Confederates were once more in retreat, this time stopping at Pleasant Hill, a small crossroads about thirty miles west of Grand Ecore, backing quickly away from the river and Porter’s gunboats.
The cavalry that had joined with General Taylor was ordered to the north bank of the Red River to do everything they could to slow Porter’s advance. Mostly, this involved taking pot shots at the ironclads. While the cavalry was certainly welcomed by Taylor, he must have been remiss at their condition. The first to arrive (on the 30th) numbered only 250 men – fifty of whom were unarmed. On the morning of this date, 350 more showed up, but 125 of them were also unarmed.
While some of Banks’ army marched rapidly north, a corps was put on transports to be taken up the river. It was hoped that by April 2, the entire command could be united at Natchitoches.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 34, Part 1, p181; Part 3, p723; Official Records of the Navy, Vol. 26, p38, 40, 562, 791-792; Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War by David Dixon Porter; The Naval History of the Civil War
by David Dixon Porter. [↩]