‘After Us Like a Pack of Wolves’ – Federal Navy Retreats Down the Red

April 11, 1864 (Monday)

Admiral Porter considered himself quite a humorist after the war.
Admiral Porter considered himself quite a humorist after the war.

On the 7th, the same day that Nathaniel Banks’ troop began their march away from the Red River toward Shreveport, Louisiana, Admiral David Dixon Porter began to steam his fleet of gunboats toward the same city. Shortly after leaving, Porter began to realize that the water levels were dropping. This was mostly due to the fact that a Confederate engineer, General William Boggs, exploded a levee that diverted water away from the Red.

It was rough going, but by the 8th, his fleet had reached the southern mouth of Bayou Pierre. Still, he was not far from his shoving off point at Grand Ecore. The next day or so was better, at least as far as river travel went. Apart from that, Porter noticed two things. First, that all of the cotton had been burned by retreating Confederates all along the river. Second, that the road alongside the Red River was in fine shape.

General Banks, when hastily planning the stab toward Shreveport, eschewed the river road as being not fit for the passing of an army. Instead, he moved away from the river, through a relative wasteland, where he met the enemy twice. The news of the first battle reached Porter as a Union victory, though it was anything but. In the second, Banks was actually victorious, but by the time Porter was chuffing past the town of Campte and Coushatta Chutte, news of this and the subsequent retreat had not yet reached his flotilla.

Incredibly approximate map showing Porter's most upriver location.
Incredibly approximate map showing Porter’s most upriver location.

“It struck me very forcibly that this would have been the route for the army,” wrote Porter to General Sherman a few days later, “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 gun-boats in company. An army would have no difficulty in marching to Shreveport in this way.”

When Porter and his fleet arrived near Loggy Bayou, he saw that the Rebels “had gotten that huge steamer, New Falls City, across River River.” Being a long vessel, the Confederates somehow managed to muscle her sideways until both bow and stern were on opposite shores. Porter called it “the smartest thing I ever knew the rebels to do,” and claimed that it gave him a mighty laugh.

“Human hands could not move her,” he continued in an account written well after the war. “If we burned her we would fill up the shoal spot just beneath her; there was just three feet of water between her keep and the bottom. Of course, her being there was an accident! But as she was put there at high water, and left there, it looked to some of us as if there was purpose in it.”

The USS Osage in the Red River, 1864
The USS Osage in the Red River, 1864

So long after the incident, Porter could not fathom that it was work done by Southern hands. Either way, it was clear that the Confederates had been close at hand, as on her side they scrawled “an invitation in large letters to attend a ball in Shreveport.” Unfortunately for Porter, more and more it seemed as if it was an “invitation we were never able to keep.”

As Porter was admiring their handiwork, he was met by messengers from General Banks. The army was whipped, said the courier according to Porter, and was falling back in full retreat to Grand Ecore. Porter’s flee was ordered “to return without delay.”

And so, Porter “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.”

Sure enough, Porter was right. “As I anticipated,” he continued to Sherman, “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 last bit might have been a touch exaggerated, but more or less, Porter continued down the Red with little loss. On this date, the logbook of the USS Chillicothe noted that “at 4:30 p.m. the enemy opened fire on the transports Black Hawk and Benefit with musketry, which was immediately replied to by the Cricket, Osage, Gazelle, and the tug Dahlia.” An hour and a half later, they shelled the wood on their left.

“The good people who met us on the way up at the different landings,” recalled Porter with good natured sarcasm after the war, “seemed so sorry to see us going back; they got their guns out and saluted us, but, unfortunately, the guns were shotted. They killed a number of our men, and they kept up such a continuous salute that at last we began to suspect their sincerity.”

Put down that whiskey, Tom! Think of your head in the morning!
Put down that whiskey, Tom! Think of your head in the morning!

Interestingly enough, after the war, Porter seemed to change his mind about always driving the Rebels away with loss. “Of course we fired back,” wrote Porter, trying to add a dash of humor, “but what harm could that do to people who were in deep rifle-pits, screened by trees or in a canebrake? The affair reminded me very much of the retreat of the French from Moscow, only this wasn’t retreating; we were getting out of the enemy’s country as fast as we could!”

The following day, Porter’s fleet would be charged by cavalry commanded by a drunken Tom Green. One of the Federal guns decapitated him, and the fight petered out. By the 13th, the Union naval vessels were more or less out of danger at Grand Ecore. There, he would find General Banks.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 34, Part 3, p172; Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 26, p778, 781; Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War by David Dixon Porter; Richard Taylor and the Red River Campaign of 1864 by Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr.; A Crisis in Confederate Command by Jeffer S. Prushankin. []
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