General Banks Disapproves of Naval Plundering

March 26, 1864 (Saturday)

Banks: Look! I can be an admiral too!
Banks: Look! I can be an admiral too!

General Nathaniel Banks finally arrived in Alexandria, Louisiana, and what he found was not at all to his liking. The Navy, led by Admiral David Dixon Porter, was snatching up all the cotton they could find – regardless of whether it was owned by the Confederate Army, private citizens, Unionists, or free blacks. Because of this conquest, as they retreated north, the Rebels were burning all the cotton they could find. Naturally, Admiral Porter explained that he was nicking the cotton because the Confederates were burning it, but Banks wasn’t believing it.

According to naval law, the property of the Confederates or even Confederate sympathizers could be seized outright. No compensation was required. The property could then be sold with half of the cut going to the crew (with Porter receiving five percent). The other half went into a fund for wounded sailors. While Porter certainly cared a great deal for his men, as well as his wounded comrades, the five percent take was a pretty sweet deal.

Cotton that was seized from the Confederate Army was branded with the initials C.S.A. When Porter’s men seized it, they would rebrand it with U.S.N. Cotton stolen from private citizens, however, was not branded at all. This required the sailors to first brand it with the C.S.A., and then brand it again as U.S.N. As it was told, the riff went that C.S.A. U.S.N. stood for the ‘Cotton Stealing Associate of the United States Navy.’

Banks, not being in command of Admiral Porter, could do nothing at all to put a stop to the cotton trade. So, he got into it himself. The army, however, wasn’t nearly as motivated at the sailors, as they received not a penny from the speculation.

Porter: Cotton Stealing Association? Oh that's a good one... but I'm still keeping my five percent.
Porter: Cotton Stealing Association? Oh that’s a good one… but I’m still keeping my five percent.

When General Banks arrived in Alexandria, he also found a letter from General Grant, dated March 15 (as described here). Basically, Grant reminded Banks that he had a finite amount of time to wrap things up in Louisiana. The troops he was using, especially A.J. Smith’s Corps from the Army of the Tennessee, would be needed for the coming campaign. If his objective wasn’t met by mid-April, he would simply have to live with the consequences.

But Banks seemed not to be incredibly concerned. First, he wished to hold elections in Alexandria to select delegates for the Unionist constitutional convention. These elections were to be held in several surrounding towns on April 1st, and he didn’t want to do much before that.

However, he didn’t have his troops simply wait in Alexandria stealing cotton. The day of his arrival, he ordered A.J. Smith’s Corps to occupy a plantation on the Red River, well north of the city. Banks’ cavalry, under Col. Thomas Lucas, was to hold Henderson’s Hill, site of the past week’s skirmish. This was part of a larger push toward Natchitoches and Grand Encore. The cavalry trotted forward on this date, while Smith’s infantry stepped off the day following. On the 28th, Banks’ own infantry, the Nineteenth Corp and two divisions of the Thirteenth Corps, would follow.

Big ol' approximate map.
Big ol’ approximate map.

At the same time, Confederate General Richard Taylor was waiting anxiously near Grand Encore, fifty or so miles north of Alexandria. He had learned that most of Sterling Price’s army from Arkansas had arrived at Shreveport, seventy-five miles farther north, and was urging his department commander, Kirby Smith, to send them along.

“It will be perfectly practicable at the present time for General Price’s command to be transported by water to Grant Encore,” Taylor helpfully suggested. “This would save 60 or 70 miles of marching.” Taylor complained that due to Unionist jayhawkers “the difficult of obtaining accurate intelligence is greatly enhanced. The whole country between this an Alexandria swarms with these outlaws, who are allied with the enemy and acting in his interests.”

Taylor was aware that Banks’ forces had not yet moved, but expected them to do so in the next day or so. Despite Taylor’s lack of cavalry, and the jayhawking activities, he was able to keep abreast of the Federal movements. Still, he wished for Thomas Green’s cavalry, which was still en route from Texas.

That night, one of Green’s officers made it to Grand Encore, telling Taylor that the division would be up in two or three days – the most advance regiment was in Sabine, still forty miles away. “I shall assume the offensive as soon as Green joins me,” vowed Taylor.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 34. Part 1, p213; Part 2, 736-737; Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Red River Expedition, p224-225; Richard Taylor and the Red River Campaign by Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr.; Pretense of Glory by James G. Hollandsworth, Jr. []
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