April 2, 1864 (Saturday)
When Nathaniel Banks joined his troops and the Navy in Alexandria, Louisiana, waiting for him was a letter from General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant. Having been written on March 15th, it had been waiting for him for some time. And though he read it on March 26th, it took him until this date to fashion some kind of reply.
The gist of Grant’s letter explained in no uncertain terms that Banks’ little campaign wasn’t all that important and needed to be over by the middle of April so that A.J. Smith’s corps could be returned to the Army of the Tennessee for the spring campaign season.
For Grant’s amusement, Banks gave a quick review of where things now stood: General Frederick Steele’s army was marching south from Little Rock, Arkansas, while his own troops (along with A.J. Smith’s) were in Natchetoches, halfway between Alexandria and Shreveport – their apparent objective.
“I do not fear concentration of the enemy at that point,” explained Banks of Shreveport. “My fear is that they may not be willing to meet us there; if not, and my forces are not weakened to too great an extent, I shall pursue the enemy into the interior of Texas, for my sole purpose of destroying or dispersing his forces, if in my power, keeping in view the necessity of the co-operation of some of my troops east of the Mississippi, and losing no time in the campaign in which I am engaged.”
Banks had to know that his over-long and troubling previous sentence wouldn’t sit well with Grant. While Banks tried to assure him that “some of my troops” had expiration dates on their heads, it seemed to all appearances that Banks was more than ready to let his Red River Campaign stretch on indefinitely.
Though it was specifically A.J. Smith’s troops that Grant wanted, he also had plans for Banks’ Army of the Gulf, as well as the Navy accompanying them. Banks was not in any real way an independent commander.
Banks explained that two Rebel strongholds had to be overcome before reaching Shreveport, but again assured Grant that “General Smith’s command will return to Vicksburg on the 15th or 17th of this month.”
This must have been somewhat reassuring, though Banks followed that by explaining that the river had been (and was still) “very low, which has delayed our operations.” Without fully blaming Admiral David Dixon Porter and the Navy, Banks wrote that “the gunboats were not able to cross the rapids at Alexandria until day before yesterday.” Banks meant March 31st, and was being generous. Even on this date, Porter was still dragging vessels across Alexandria Falls.
Most of Porter’s vessels, however, were across, and it was only the transports and random ships that were still struggling. The ironclad USS Mound City, for instance, had spent the day previous helping the Ozark navigate the falls, but on this date, steamed up the river with the [William H.] Brown and [Ike] Hammitt – both steamers – lashed to her sides. A few shoals were struck, but by mid-morning, they were clear and cruising north.
The USS Carondelet, also an ironclad, who had passed through the rapids, her bottom scraping the entire way, only with the help of the Brown, was on this date, pressing forward up the Red River with the Lexington and Chilicothe (a timberclad and ironclad, respectively) following. Around 10:30 that morning, they stopped to destroy a few flatboats.
Both the Mound City and Carondelet were in the rear. That afternoon, the steamer Fort Hindman made her way down the Red River to inform them that the the main fleet was twenty-seven miles ahead of them at Grand Ecore.
Even farther behind was the USS Cricket, a traditional riverboat that had been converted to military use by adding a few guns. She would be one of the last ships to arrive at Grand Ecore – the staging ground for the Navy, just as Banks was staging at nearby Natchetoches. Admiral Porter’s flagship had been the Black Hawk, but on this date, he transfered his flag to the Cricket, and by mid-morning, they were all steaming up the river.
Admiral Porter’s fleet had been held up at the Falls, but were now waiting for General Banks to arrive. Instead, Banks was still in Alexandria. April 2nd was the day that he slated as Election Day.1 Banks was naturally keen on the idea that Louisiana gather enough delegates to be admitted back into the Union as soon as possible – even if it meant delaying his military campaign.
Flags were hung and cannons were fired, as a plethora of suddenly-loyal (and some actually loyal) citizens gathered to perform their civic duty. In all, 300 votes were cast. It was apparently a large majority of those eligible to vote.
In the end, Banks would blame Admiral Porter and the grounding of the USS Eastport for his failure to join the infantry at Natchetoches until the day following this. In truth, the Eastport had been free of the falls for days and there was no obstruction between Alexandria and Grand Ecore. Even if there had been, Banks was in regular communication with his troops at Natchetoches.2
- According to Banks’ letter to one of his generals, the elections were held on this date (OR 34.3.19-20), though according to other sources (secondary, mostly), they were held on the 1st. [↩]
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 34, Part 1, p179-180; Part 3, p20; Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 26, p50, 774, 781, 792; Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Red River, p335; Red River Campaign: Politics and Cotton in the Civil War by Ludwell H. Johnson. [↩]