Steele Placed in ‘Command’ of the Red River

April 7, 1864 (Thursday)

Banks: This thing could take months!
Banks: This thing could take months!

News from the West often came slowly to the East. While communication between General William Tecumseh Sherman in Nashville and Ulysses S. Grant in Culpeper took at most a day, messages coming out of both the Red River and in the hills of Arkansas took considerably longer.

Nathaniel Banks’ troops, by this date, had moved up the Red to Natchitoches, and were marching on Shreveport. All that Grant and Washington knew, however, was that they had made it to Natchitoches. The word from General Frederick Steele in Arkansas was even foggier. All anyone really knew was that he had left Little Rock to march on Camden, and while this was true, it was also incredibly vague.

Originally, Generals Grant and Sherman had given Nathaniel Banks a month to wrap things up along the Red River, “even if it led to the abandonment of the main object of the Red River expedition,” wrote Grant. Shreveport, Louisiana was the object, but nobody seemed to care much about the results. Banks commanded his own Army of the Gulf, as well as a corps and a half from the Army of the Tennessee. Sherman needed those men for the Spring campaign and was worried that he might not get them back in time.

And so to hurry things along, Grant decided that it was time for the Red River Campaign to come to an unceremonious end.

“I have directed General Banks to turn over the defense of the Red River to Steele and the navy,” wrote Grant to Sherman the day previous. “Please give Steele such directions as you think necessary to carry out this direction.”

This must have come as a welcome shock to Sherman. Though he needed his own troops, he had no idea what Banks’ men were to do (though figured that Grant wanted them to hit Mobile, Alabama). But then, that wasn’t his department. Sherman received the message and replied to Grant in the morning of this date.

After agreeing to instruct Steele, Sherman mused no the importance of Shreveport, calling it “the grand doorway to Texas, and the key of the entire Southwest.” He figured that to hold it, Steele would “want all the available troops now in Kansas and Missouri.” Believing those states to be more or less free of organized Rebel forces, Sherman thought they could be handled by militia.

Sherman: You've got negative one days now. Steele, catch this hot potato!
Sherman: You’ve got negative one days now. Steele, catch this hot potato!

But that was just speculation. Technically, as Sherman reminded Chief of Staff Henry Halleck, “Arkansas has no real connection with this command.” He then suggested Steele for the military commander of all active fighting forces in that region. He went on to propose a new system of three military grand divisions – right, center and left (far west, west, and east). It was an idea he had been kicking around for awhile.

Grant replied to Sherman’s message at 7:30pm, letting him know that he “ordered all the troops that can be spared from the States west of the Ohio to be sent to you. You can send them to Steele or where you think best.” As for Missouri, General William Rosecrans, the department commander, “reports he can send no troops.” However, Grant had an inspector there, and was going to have him see for himself.

Finally, Sherman was able to sit down and write out an overview of what he wanted from General Steele, the man now in command of the Red River Campaign.

“I feel embarrassed to make you, who are on the spot, any specific orders,” Sherman began, “especially as I know not what force you are supposed to retain on the Red River or how far the present expedition has progressed.” At this point, Sherman merely suspected that all or most of Banks’ troops were going to be recalled. As for what force the Confederates had thrown against Steele in Arkansas, he had not a clue. All he knew for sure was that he had recalled the elements from the Army of the Tennessee, and was hoping to get them back shortly.

For a moment, he considered that Banks’ 17,000 troops would remain on the Red River. They, combined with Steele’s 7,000 (with Steele in command of all), “would be able to accomplish all that should be attempted this spring.” On the other hand, if Grant had ordered Banks to Mobile, “you will no t have enough men to accomplish all that should be done.”

Steele: Huh?
Steele: Huh?

Sherman continued under the assumption of the latter – Steele would have to go it alone (with the Navy). He urged him to get in contact with Admiral David Dixon Porter to work out the details, but shared his own views on the subject anyway.

Alexandria and Shreveport, wrote Sherman, “are the strategic points of Louisiana. Shreveport, if held in strength, covers all Arkansas and Louisiana, and is the proper offensive point as against Texas. If able, therefore, Shreveport should be captured, supplied well at present stage of water and held in force, communications kept up with New Orleans by water and with Fort Smith [Arkansas] by land.”

If Steele was unable to capture Shreveport, Sherman wanted him to be happy with Alexandria, as “the enemy could not approach the Mississippi River, and would hardly cross Red River as against Arkansas and Missouri.” Basically, if Shreveport was in Federal hands, they could launch and offensive against Texas. If it was in Confederate hands, they could go no the defensive, guarding the rivers and keeping the Confederacy cleft in two.

Sherman ended by promising to push down the Missouri and Kansas troops if he could get them. “If you can accomplish in Red River what you did in Arkansas, you will be entitled to the gratitude and admiration of all sensible men.”

This message to Steele would take far too long to reach him, and by the time it might, everything in both the Red River and in Arkansas would be so drastically changed that little would matter.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 34, Part 1, p11, Part 3, p56, 74-76, 106. []
Creative Commons License
Steele Placed in ‘Command’ of the Red River by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


View all posts by