April 15, 1864 (Friday)
William Tecumseh Sherman was understandably worried. He had loaned more than a corps worth of men to Nathaniel Banks’ Red River Campaign, with the understanding that they would be returned to him by April 15th at the latest. While he never fully trusted Banks to return the troops on time, he also didn’t fully blame Banks.
On the morning of this date, he received a wire from Little Rock, Arkansas, giving the latest news from Frederick Steele’s front, about 200 miles north of Banks’ army in Louisiana. Steele had been selected to take over for Banks in the Union stab at Shreveport. Banks was to move on Mobile, while the corps under A.J. Smith was to be returned to Sherman.
Sherman related to General Grant that Steele “had had considerable skirmishing, in all of which he was successful,” but had been holed up near Camden for quite some time. “It seems to me his movement is very slow, and he may be so late in reaching Red River as to keep Generals Banks and A.J. Smith away behind time.
Obviously, this was already the case, but with Steele’s case of the slows, it was beginning to seem like it was going to take even longer. Hoping to hurry Steele along, Sherman reminded him that “General Grant expects Generals Banks and A.J. Smith’s forces to come out of Red River for some other work very soon.” Steele was to “push with all possible speed to make a junction on Red River.” Sherman ended with a bit of optimism: “Banks’ forces should by this time be in Shreveport.”
Banks was, of course, not at all in Shreveport. His forces had been victorious, and the road to Shreveport, thought by many, to be open. But he retreated anyway, falling back to Grand Ecore on the Red River, seventy miles south of their objective.
At the same time that Sherman was both hurrying Steele and being overly optimistic about Shreveport, General Banks was writing General Steele to give him the bad news.
“The enemy is in larger force than was anticipated by the Government,” Banks began, passing the blame on up the chain of command. The enemy had “manifested his determination to fight for the possession of Shreveport and the country he now occupies, which was not anticipated by many of our officers.” Again, Banks needed Steele to understand that it wasn’t his fault.
Banks admitted that both his and Steele’s armies were so far separated “that is is impossible for either of us to sustain effectively the forces of the other.” This was undoubtedly true, and at this point, according to orders directly from Grant, Banks should have called it a campaign, cut his losses, sent A.J. Smith back to Sherman, and moved his army to New Orleans to prepare for the thrust against Mobile.
Instead, he was determined to make it work. “If you can join us on this line,” he wrote Steele, “I am confident we can move to Shreveport without material delay, and that we shall have an opportunity of destroying the only organized rebel army west of the Mississippi.” Indeed, that had alway been the plan, it’s just that now was far too late.
In Arkansas, Steele would have loved to move on Shreveport, but as he was discovering, Shreveport was moving on him. He had been able to back the Rebels toward the town of Washington, which left open to road to Camden. However, as he explained two days later, “our supplies were nearly exhausted, and so was the country. We were obliged to forage from 5 to 15 miles on either side of the road [to Camden] to keep our stock alive.”
Wondering how Banks might be fairing, Steele sent scouts and messengers south, but they had not yet returned. Rumors, however, were plentiful. “Everybody said Banks had been repulsed below Natchitoches, and had fallen back.”
His army had lingered too long, foraging the road to Camden. The Confederates, commanded by Sterling Price, were determined to get between him and the town. Originally, believing Steele to be headed straight for Shreveport, Price had evacuated the fortified town. Now, they wanted it back.
“When they found we had turned this way,” continued Steele, “they tried to beat us here. [General John] Marmaduke got in our front and [General Thomas] Dockery in our rear, by the middle and north roads, and endeavored to hold us until Price could get into the fortifications by the south road with his infantry and artillery.”
Steele’s men made a hard march, “driving Marmaduke before us from position to position.” The longer this took, the more reinforcements flooded into the Confederate ranks. A division of cavalry that had been in Indian Territory had just arrived, and, though Steele did not yet know it, General Kirby Smith with three divisions of infantry was on his way.
Now that he was in Camden, Steele seemed hesitant to leave. The Confederates had expected a large amount of labor in fortifying the town. “There are nine forts on eminences, and they seem to be well located. Strategically and commercially, I regard this as the first town in Arkansas.” Steele knew that he was to move on the Red River, and even vowed to do so, but still considered it “all important to hold this place.” He argued that the Red River was much less navigable than the Arkansas River, upon which Camden was founded.
Unbeknownst to both Frederick Steele and Nathaniel Banks, however, General Sherman was taking a bit of control. On this date, A.J. Smith received orders directly from Sherman to immediately return to Vicksburg. The following day, Banks would have much to say about this.1
- Sources: Series 1, Vol. 34, Part 1, p660-661, 676; Part 3, p160, 161, 162. [↩]