April 16, 1864 (Tuesday)
General A.J. Smith was ready to leave. The day previous, he had received orders from William Tecumseh Sherman to load his troops on transports and begin their journey down the Red River and up the Mississippi to Vicksburg. The spring campaign season was about to start. This should have come as no surprise to Nathaniel Banks, who was leading the Federal expedition up the Red River. Long before starting out, everyone from Sherman to General Grant and Henry Halleck told him that the project would have to be wrapped up by the middle of April.
Banks received notice from Smith himself, who explained that he was being recalled by Sherman. This would not do, as Banks was determined to make something out of his complete debacle to take Shreveport, Louisiana. Now, from his headquarters about 70 miles down the Red from his quarry, Banks wrote both Sherman and A.J. Smith.
“The low stage of the water in Red River, and the difficulties encountered in our campaign consequent thereon,” began Banks, “makes it impossible for me to dispense with your services as soon as I anticipated.” Of course, Banks wasn’t told to simply send Smith’s troops back in mid-April, but to completely wrap things up by that time. In General Grant’s last communication with Banks, he was informed that even if the campaign had to be called off early and without reaching his objective, Banks was to do so. But that wasn’t Banks’ thinking.
“Did it not involve more than the abandonment of the expedition I might consider General Sherman’s orders as imperative,” he continued, “but it is impossible for the navy to remove below at this time, and the withdrawal of your command at this moment will place my forces at the mercy of the enemy, who is in larger force than General Sherman could have anticipated.”
In Banks’ explanation, written the previous day, as to why he failed to take Shreveport, he had blamed the “Government” for not anticipating the number of Rebels in Louisiana. Now, he was blaming Sherman’s apparent naivete. Additionally, the number of Rebels now before him had been drastically reduced by Kirby Smith, who was dragging three divisions northward to stop the Federals under Frederick Steele in Arkansas. All that Banks had now to contend with was a single small division of infantry and a few brigades of cavalry. In reality, the enemy was in much smaller force than General Banks would have anticipated.
Banks, of course, agreed to “assume myself the responsibility for this course,” should Sherman begin to ask just why the hell Smith was still in Louisiana. In closing, Banks dropped Admiral David Dixon Porter’s name. Porter was in command of the naval fleet on the Red, and Banks made it seem as if he and the Admiral came to this conclusion as one.
Interestingly enough, Admiral Porter also took the opportunity on this date to write to Sherman. After submitting what was more or less his official report of the campaign thus far, Porter praised A.J. Smith and slagged Banks. Porter found Smith, though depressed by the turn arounds, “anxious to go out and whip the rebels, which we are able to do without any trouble.” Of Banks, however, Porter wrote “that I think General Banks is watching for an opportunity to retreat. If General Smith should leave him there would be a general stampede and much loss of material, and General A.J. Smith would be made the scapegoat.”
If Porter had concurred with Banks in the assessment that Smith had to stay in Louisiana, this was specifically the reason – because Banks would blame him for the utter mess that was the Red River Campaign. Porter insisted that “we must hold the country, general, and not have to go over all this again.”
Squarely, Porter blamed Banks. “Had Banks been victorious, as any ordinary general would have been,” held Porter, “we would have had no trouble at all, but he has led all hands into an ugly scrape. I did all I could to avoid going up this river with him, but he would have thrown all the blame of failure on me had I failed to go.” In the end, Banks would blame Porter anyway.
It would take several days for the letters of Banks and Porter to reach Sherman. But on this date, they were not far from Sherman’s thoughts. Henry Halleck, Chief of Staff, had asked Sherman who he thought might be best to command the Federal armies west of the Mississippi. This question mostly stumped the otherwise certain Sherman. He knew of no one who “could reconcile the discordant claims” of his officers in the west, Nathaniel Banks and Frederick Steele, included.
“Of them,” he almost concluded, “I would prefer Steele, because he will fight, but his movements are too slow for this stage of the war. Banks is entirely too much engrossed in schemes of civil experiments.” Steele had been placed in command already and was to replace Banks on the Red River, but just how long that might take to happen was anybody’s guess. Also, it must also be remembered that on this date, Sherman still did not know of Sherman’s reverses, believing that he and A.J. Smith “with gun-boats, were well up toward Shreveport.”
The spring campaign for both Grant in the East, and Sherman in the West was slated to start on the First of May.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 3, p375-376, 383; Vol. 34, Part 3, p174, 175. [↩]