March 14, 1864 (Monday)
“It will be unsafe to linger here,” warned General John G. Walker, commander of the Confederate Fort DeRussy. For two days, reports of Yankees landing at Simmsport, thirty miles south, and an immense naval fleet had caused him more than a small bit of concern. “I feel most solicitous for the fate of Fort DeRussy,” he wrote to his commander, Richard Taylor, “as it must fall as soon almost as invested by the force now marching against it.”
General Taylor, who was headquartered in Alexandria, fifteen miles up the Red River, wasn’t having it. “If the force of the enemy landing at Simmsport is such as to admit of your fighting him with the least hope of success,” he began, “the sooner you attack him the better.” Taylor advised to hit the Yankees before their entire force, which Walker deemed to be 18,000 (though it was about half that), was fully on land. The force at Fort DeRussy was around 3,000.
Taylor gave some instructions for a retreat, but cautioned that “every hour that the enemy is held in check by your presence in his front or on his flank must be improved to get everything in complete readiness at Fort DeRussy.” He later warned that the loss of DeRussy, which its commander felt to be almost certain, “would be a great disaster, and, therefore, we must take more than ordinary hazards in fighting.”
Throughout the previous day, Union troops under A.J. Smith were disembarked and began their march from Simmsport to Fort DeRussy. Walker, perhaps heeding Taylor’s words best he could, threw a brigade under General “Dirty Neck Bill” Scurry to block the supposed route Smith was taking. The Rebels burned a bridge, but Smith decided upon another road, as well as a different crossing of Bayou de Glaize.
By the night of the 13th, Smith’s Corps had marched north through Marksville and was a mile and a half south of the Confederate fort. He arranged his troops, designating a division under Joseph Mower to attack, while another division under Kilby Smith was kept back as reserves. And then, in the early predawn of this date, they began their march.
Confederate General Walker, due to Taylor’s instructions, had established a defensive position outside of the fort and were trying to draw the Federals into a fight. His position, however, was hardly fitting for escape. He found himself on what was almost an island created by the winding series of bayous and the Red River, with the only rout for salvation to the south. This nearly cut him off from the fort entirely.
General Smith, with his 9,000 Federals, quickly figured this out. Word had reached Walker that the Union troops had given up getting at Fort DeRussy by land, returned to their transport and were being steamed up the Red River. “Soon after daylight on the 14th,” reported Walker, “this information was proven incorrect by hearing the sound of numerous drums in the distance in the direction of Simmsport, and as the morning advanced it became apparent that the enemy in force was approaching our position.”
Soon, Walker could see the Yankees before him, stretching in a line two and a half miles long. Reasoning that there were as many as 17,000 Federals before him with up to forty pieces of artillery, he saw his chances of defending his position to be almost suicidal. Still, Walker waited, and soon deduced that Smith’s Federals were about to move on the fort instead. But even this gave him an opportunity, as he was now on the left flank of the Northern column.
As it turned out, however, the lovely rolling prairie country through which the Federals marched gave Walker a clear view of their forces. He had hoped that Smith would move the fort with only a portion of his command, so that he might have some success in falling upon the column. But it was not the case. The Yankees before him were much too strong.
“All these considerations induced me to adopt the only course not dictated by folly or madness,” he concluded in his report, “and however mortifying it might be to abandon our brave companions in arms at Fort DeRussy to their fate, it became my imperative duty to do so rather than attempt assistance, which at best could delay this danger but a few hours, and without a miracle from Heaven would insure the certain destruction of my entire command.”
These “brave companions in arms at Fort DeRussy” amounted to just over 300 men under a Colonel Byrd, who had been in command of readying the fort. The Federals wasted no time and, as Admiral Porter’s gunboats kept the Rebels distracted, two brigades of Yankees were up and over the short earthen walls. The 300, including their colonel, were prisoners. The fort’s ten guns, along with not even 200 small arms were captured. The rest of the Rebels, under General Walker, were now nearly trapped. With no recourse left to them, they fled south to Evergreen [off the map] and would not rejoin General Taylor until the 19th.
The Federals were overjoyed with the ease in which they took Fort DeRussy, but immediately set their minds upon Alexandria, while General Taylor made plans to flee north, fifty miles toward Natchitoches.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 34, Part 1, p305, 314, 491-492, 598-599; Richard Taylor and the Red River Campaign of 1864 by Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr.; A Crisis in Confederate Command by Jeffery S. Prushankin. [↩]