March 21, 1864 (Monday)
Union General Nathaniel Banks had yet to arrive in Alexandria, Louisiana. Neither had any of his infantry made an appearance, the closest troops being all of two days away. The cavalry of Albert Lee, however, had shown up, joining with General A.J. Smith’s troops from the Army of the Tennessee. Lee’s scouts had reported that the Rebels under Richard Taylor, who had until recently occupied Alexandria, had a presence at a plantation forty some miles up the Red River. Confederate cavalry had been seen the day previous much closer, and General Smith ordered one of Lee’s brigades to deduce that they were about.
The brigade selected was helmed by Thomas J. Lucas, who had, until recently, commanded an Indiana Mounted Infantry regiment. They were to leave at 5am, accompanied by a battery of artillery and two day’s worth of rations. When Lucas’ brigade arrived, they were placed under the overall command of General Joseph Mower. Along with the cavalry, General Smith decided to send two full brigades of infantry from Mower’s Division.
But Lucas’ horse soldiers lead the way, leaving just before the infantry stepped off. By 6am, the roads north were filled with marching feet and trotting hooves. Through the morning, all was clear as Lucas’ Brigade advanced along Bayou Rapides, a distributary of the Red River. It wasn’t until they were thirteen miles outside of Alexandria that they met the first Rebels. It wasn’t yet noon.
Without the aid of the infantry, Lucas’ cavalry drove the Confederates back seven miles, backing them across the small river and up the southern slope of Henderson’s Hill. The position aloft was a fine one, and Lucas halted his command to await the arrival of General Mower. The Rebels, who were a mere regiment of cavalry with an artillery battery tagging along, opened fire upon them around 1pm, sending the troopers diving for cover.
Mower, taking in the terrain, and river, and the situation called for Lucas to hold the Rebels’ attention in the front with three of his regiments, while a forth, accompanied by two guns and a brigade of infantry, slipped around to the enemy’s right. It would be a march of sixteen miles.
For the infantry, the tramp would be shorter (as the cavalry scouted and guarded their flanks). Still, according to Col. Sylvester Hill, commanding the brigade, “after a tedious march of about 8 miles, through marshes and a dense pine forest, in a hard rain and cold wind, we halted. The men were much fatigued and thoroughly wet, suffering from cold and a severe hail-storm; some were compelled from exhaustion to leave the ranks.”
A Missouri regiment was sent forward as skirmishers along with the two pieces of artillery, but the weather and exhaustion played upon the men. Through sheer force of will, the Missourians rooted out the position of the Rebel camp and ascertained that the enemy was cut off from any retreat. An Iowa regiment was sent forward to assail the encampment as the Missourians followed.
“The enemy’s pickets were relieved by the advance and placed under guard,” wrote Lt. Col. William Heath of the 33rd Missouri, “a section of his battery, with caissons and horses, captured, and the center of his camp gained without raising any alarm or meeting any opposition, the enemy mistaking us for re-enforcements which had been requested from General Walker. Moving rapidly now, with fixed bayonets, through his camp, we succeeded, without resistance, except a few pistol-shots, in capturing a gun and limber and two caissons, all with horses complete, besides a number of prisoners, cavalry horses and equipments, and a few small arms.”
The Iowa regiment was placed in charge of the prisoners, and the Missiourians moved on, marching in line out of the Rebel camp toward the river, where they scooped up still more prisoners found in an abandoned camp nearby.
The Missourians took no casualties, while the Iowa regiments suffered but one – a man “slightly wounded in the mouth by a pistol-shot; he was carrying the colors at the time.” All told, the Federals nicked “4 pieces of artillery (2 were loaded with canister), 4 caissons filled with fixed ammunition, 32 horses attached to the artillery, ready for immediate action; also 222 prisoners, including 16 officers, 126 horses equipped, 1 guidon, an ambulance with some surgical instruments and medicines, which the division surgeon took charge of, 92 stand of small-arms.”
The Rebels had been commanded by Col. William Vincent, but he was not captured, having made a narrow escape, according to some, while wearing his slippers. Through the day, General Taylor had been in contact with Vincent. From the plantation several miles to the north, he could hear the booming of artillery, and was trying to hurry reinforcements to relieve them. Closer to dusk, the communication stopped and Taylor assumed the worst. The courier delivering the communication to and from the Rebels had been captured right before the rest of the regiment was gobbled whole.
Vincent’s regiment was General Taylor’s only mounted force, and when he learned of their demise the following day, he lamented that “this disaster leaves me with little or no means of obtaining information in front of a very large force of the enemy’s cavalry.” Taylor blamed “the treachery of citizens,” as well as “deserters and jayhawkers” who guided the Yankees along “a road unknown to my best guides.”
Taylor expected an attack the following day, but none would come. The Federals, apparently satisfied with depriving the Rebels of their entire cavalry force, returned to Alexandria to await General Banks. Even without an attack, Taylor thought it best to begin a retreat north toward Natchitoches and Mansfield, where he had places depots to aid his men in case the inevitable actually came to pass.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 34, Part 1, p303, 323, 332, 334, 326, 463-464, 501, 506, 561-562; Part 2, p666; Richard Taylor and the Red River Campaign of 1864 by Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr. [↩]