April 22, 1864 (Friday)
General Nathaniel Banks was retreating in Louisiana. Following his victory at Pleasant Hill, he retreated to Grand Ecore on the Red River, where he stayed for a spell, his army digging in, preparing for the Confederates under Richard Taylor to give chase.
But now he was retreating once more, this time toward Alexandria. On the 19th, Banks ordered A.J. Smith’s troops to hold Natchitoches, a few miles outside of Grand Ecore, as the rest of the Army of the Gulf made their way south. By the 21st, Banks was on the road, ordering his men to cast aside anything that might weigh they down. As they left, the Federals burned a warehouse full of supplies, but the fight spread to the rest of Grand Ecore, and soon the town was gone.
The column of smoke alerted Taylor that the Federals were retreating, and he moved to block the route. Banks was traveling a road running on the west side of the Red River, running much closer to the Cane, a distributary of the Red, creating a large island across which Banks was marching. To cross the Cane and continue toward Alexandria, he had to use Monett’s Ferry. But on the day previous (the 21st), Banks caught wind that Taylor’s cavalry were riding hard for the crossing. Even though he knew he would have to use it, he never sent his own cavalry ahead to guard it.
Now is as good a time as any to drop a reminder that Banks’ force numbered around 30,000, while Richard Taylor’s could muster only 5,500. This hardly seemed to deter the Rebels, who had been sapped of three infantry divisions by their department commander, Kirby Smith, who was now making his way north into Arkansas to beat back what he perceived as a greater Federal column under Frederick Steele. At any rate, Taylor was on his own and certainly couldn’t bring on any real sort of engagement. However, he could harass Banks just as he did under Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley.
All through this day, Taylor’s cavalry under John Wharton nipped at A.J. Smith’s heels, forcing his rear guard to deploy in line of battle. Whatever, of course, never attacked, wanting only to slow the column. Scores of Federals dropped out of the ranks, exhausted from continuous marching. Wharton gobbled them up immediately. Those who were not awaiting attack or becoming prisoners, burned all they could, setting fire to public and private buildings alike.
The front of Banks’ column soon learned that the Rebels were in their front, as they had to heft trees and other obstructions set across the road by Confederate cavalry under General Hamilton Bee.
Bee’s troopers had found good ground on the opposite bank of the Cane River crossing at Monett’s Ferry. His command consisted of four brigades, most of which he deployed across a high bluff overlooking the river. But Bee made a mistake. Though his position was a brilliant one, he sent off his reserves to the west to guard a supply base, far out of reach. The next morning, it was likely that Banks’ cavalry would test their resolve.
In the meantime, General Richard Taylor was growing more optimistic that Kirby Smith might return one of his divisions to him, so that he could actually give battle. But Smith was having a hard time making up his mind. When he arrived in Arkansas on the 19th, he believed that the Federals Banks to the south and Steele to the north both constituted a great threat to Shreveport – where they were to both meet and assail, according to the original plan.
After much thought, Smith agreed with Taylor. He needed more troops to make sure that Banks could not strike at Shreveport. On the 20th, Kirby Smith informed Taylor that John Walker’s Division was halted. He wanted to know if it could be “moved with safety directly from where it is to Campti.” The division was resting about fifty miles east of Shreveport, and about seventy-five miles northeast of Campti, along the Red River.
However, when word reached him that Banks was in retreat from Grand Ecore, the threat to Shreveport seemed like not a threat at all. On this date, Kirby Smith again made up his mind. It also helped that Frederick Steele’s Federals were still holding Camden, Arkansas with seemingly no desire to retreat.
“Finding that Banks was rapidly retreat down Red River below Natchitoches,” wrote Smith on this date, “while Steele had taken position in [Sterling] Price’s front at Camden, I ordered Walker, who had been halted about 40 miles below on the Minden road, to move up to Price’s support. Walker was too far off to join you before the enemy reached Alexandria. Steele cannot be left in his present position, strengthened by re-enforcements and supplies, without endangering the fruit of your victories below.”
Additionally, Smith was looking toward the future. If Taylor was convinced that Banks was retreating not only to Alexandria, but to New Orleans, “I would suggest that you repair here in person. I can place you on duty with your increased rank, and would feel that I had left the conduct of operations in safe hands.” Clearly, Kirby Smith did not trust Sterling Price.
Since messages took a day or so to travel between Richard Taylor and Kirby Smith, neither knew exactly what the other was up to or wanted. Taylor, by this time, thought that Walker’s Division was on its way to him. Either way, of course, he was poised to hold up Banks’ column at Monett’s Ferry.
Delaying and harassing the enemy might seem like a waste of time and blood. And indeed, it was a waste of time, though in this case, for the Federals. Before General Banks had launched his Red River Campaign, General Sherman had given him a corps and a half under A.J. Smith, with the stipulation that they be returned to Vicksburg by the middle of April. Sherman had insisted, cajoled, and even brought General Grant to he table in an effort to get Banks to comply. But now it was growing too late.
The previous day (the 21st), official word of Banks’ failure along the Red River reached Washington and General Grant. Sherman had sent an officer to Banks to recall in person A.J. Smith’s command. The officer returned without A.J. Smith. “He [Banks] refused to return Smith’s command,” came the report. “The naval force is caught in low water with shoals above and below.”
Banks certainly refused, but so too did Admiral David Dixon Porter, who believed the water in the Red now too low for the troops transports. On this date, Grant wrote to Sherman. The news received “satisfies me of what I always believe,” began the pragmatic Grant, “that forces sent to Banks would be lost for our spring campaign.”
This changed much. “You will have to make your calculations now leaving A.J. Smith out,” wrote Grant about Sherman’s coming spring campaign. “Do not let this delay or embarrass, however. Leave for him, if he should return, such directions as you deem more advisable. He may return in time to be thrown in somewhere, very opportunely.”
Back along the Cane River, the night was short, and Banks’ cavalry was up before the dawn, probing toward Monett’s Ferry and the Rebel position.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 3, p442-443, Vol. 34, Part 1, p534; A Crisis in Confederate Command by Jeffery S. Prushankin; Richard Taylor and the Red River Campaign by Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr.; Kirby Smith’s Confederacy by Robert L. Kerby. [↩]